These aren't the semifinals either Clemson or SMU envisioned a few weeks ago, but you could do a whole lot worse than a trip to Madison Square Garden.
Buoyed by their high seeds and stellar performances, the Tigers and Mustangs each head into their NIT semifinal looking like the tournament selection committee made a mistake.
Clemson has gotten consistently stellar performances from K.J. McDaniels, arguably the nation's toughest 6'6" player. McDaniels scored 16 points and filled up the stat sheet in the team's quarterfinal win over Belmont and was integral to the Tigers' defensive effort in holding Illinois to 49 points a round earlier. Brad Brownell's team has consistently taken on McDaniels' tenacity, overachieving despite questionable talent all over the floor.
The star in Dallas is Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach who brought his resume to SMU in the hopes of building a program from the ground up. Brown has done a masterful job already, arguably leading the most egregious at-large team left on the cutting room floor. Nic Moore hit a three-pointer with 6.5 seconds remaining to lead SMU to a 67-65 win over Cal in a relatively thrilling contest that kept the March Madness spirit alive.
Given the pitiful performances by some at-large teams (looking at you, Colorado), Brown certainly would have had cause for complaint. Instead, he's merely continued assembling a potent program resume—one that will be helped by the arrival of top recruit Emmanuel Mudiay next season.
For now, there's business to attend to. Brown's most recent memories of Madison Square Garden are miserable, first during his ugly one-year tenure with the Knicks and later in a mediocre run in Charlotte. Let's take a look at how the two teams stack up and whether Brown's latest trip to The Mecca will bring happier results.
Winner storms the court.
When: April 1, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Game Preview, Prediction
Those looking for happy fun time and an explosion of offensive basketball might just want to catch up on New Girl on Tuesday instead. Clemson and SMU are not dissimilar in their team profiles, both of which read in big, bold letters, "wants to punch you in the mouth."
The Tigers scrap for every inch on the floor, with McDaniels leading the charge. Diminutive for his position, McDaniels might be the best 6'6" shot-blocker on the planet, averaging nearly three swats per night. His high-usage offensive tactics receive a bit less of a co-sign. Shooting from beyond the arc just isn't his specialty.
But during this NIT run, McDaniels has shown surprising restraint and, as a result, an increased efficiency. He's shooting 64.5 percent overall for the tournament, including a surprising 4-of-8 clip from beyond the arc.
The Tigers are still a woefully inconsistent offensive team, but they've made close to half their shots through three games and have been getting clutch performances in close games. Guard Damarcus Harrison scored 14 second-half points against Belmont, while sophomore Jordan Roper has added nearly four points per game to his total in the NIT.
"We set a standard for us," Harrison told reporters after the win over Belmont. "We've grinded, we play our hardest every time we step on the court, and we set a new standard. This has taken us this far."
Similar stories can be told of SMU, one of the nation's fiercest defensive teams in the regular season and one largely dependent on big-time individual performances to come out on top. Regular-season leading scorer Nic Moore has struggled a bit with his shot, but someone's been there to pick up the slack every game.
Cannen Cunningham started it off with an out-of-nowhere 17 points against UC Irvine, Nick Russell chipped in 16 against LSU and Moore's aforementioned stellar outing led the way versus Cal. Brown, perhaps softening a bit at age 73, recognized the special moment for his team in his postgame meeting with reporters—also sending a self-deprecating shot his own way:
I don't know if they'll let me in. I did not feel good about New York because I didn't do a real good job coaching the Knicks. But for my team, growing up, we talked about this, the NIT was huge when I was a boy. ... I'm so thankful our kids are going to get to have that opportunity.
The reality is this SMU team is as much a triumph from Brown as it is these kids. Taking over a program without so much as an NIT or NCAA berth since 2000, Brown instilled an aggressive, team-oriented defense that forces bad mistakes from opponents. The Mustangs rank 19th nationally in defensive efficiency and force opponents to turn the ball over on more than 21 percent of their possessions (subscription required).
More than anything, that's where SMU should get the nod as the favorite in an otherwise close game. Clemson can at times struggle with ball control, specifically against the press, and things have snowballed for the Tigers at points this season. Though overachieving, this is the same team that managed to lose to Auburn, score in the 40s four different times and regularly goes through multi-minute scoring droughts.
Clemson's total inability to shoot from distance also works in the Mustangs' favor. SMU is ninth in opponent two-point percentage (subscription required), whereas its aggressive style can sometimes lead to open threes. The Tigers don't take advantage of enough opportunities to make that a threat. SMU's total disregard for the three stripe offensively also negates Clemson's biggest strength defensively.
It won't be pretty. You won't enjoy watching it. But SMU will come out ahead.
Score Prediction: SMU 61, Clemson 52
All metrics via KenPom.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: