No, it's not the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, but playing in Madison Square Garden for the semifinals of the 2014 NIT tournament is certainly a nice reward for any college athlete.
Now that the NCAA tournament field is moving on to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., the NIT is replacing it with more great college basketball. With several of the top teams entering the tournament still remaining, both matchups offer plenty of intrigue in New York.
While the NCAA bracket was busted by several lower seeds throughout the tournament, the NIT has been much more chalk, as the No. 1 seeds nearly make up the entire semifinals slate.
The Minnesota versus Florida State game pits two teams that faced earlier in the season against once another with the Gophers coming out on top. But with the Seminoles progressing as a team since the matchup at the beginning of the season, they'll look to prove themselves against a fellow No. 1 seed.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 SMU faces off with No. 3 Clemson, the only program outside of the top seeds to earn a spot in the semifinals. While both teams had aspirations of making the NCAA field, they have more than proven their worth thus far in the NIT tournament.
Before both games officially tip off, here's a look at both matchups and predictions for the NIT semifinals.
No. 1 SMU vs. No. 3 Clemson
After being dejected on Selection Sunday, the Mustangs have rebounded in the NIT to finish the season strong. This matchup comes down to two teams playing great defensive basketball looking to create offensively to make the finals.
For SMU, Larry Brown has relied on great shooting efforts from Nic Moore all season. The sophomore guard has averaged 13.5 points per game and has slowly recovered from a terrible performance against Houston in the conference tournament to shoot .428 percent from behind the arc in the NIT.
Another sophomore in Markus Kennedy has also been an impact player during the tournament. The Villanova transfer has made a huge difference with his size down low. Landry Nnoko of Clemson spoke about how difficult the matchup will be with the 6'9" forward, per Clemson Basketball:
Landry Nnoko meeting with reporters now at Littlejohn. Says he's "blessed" to be able to play in a venue as famous as Madison Square Garden.— Clemson Basketball (@ClemsonMBB) March 28, 2014
Says guarding SMU post Markus Kennedy is going to be a "big challenge."— Clemson Basketball (@ClemsonMBB) March 28, 2014
For Clemson, the team runs through K.J. McDaniels. The senior is both a leader on the offensive side of the floor and a tenacious defender capable of stopping any player. The junior has averaged 19.3 points along with 11 blocks during the NIT through three games.
McDaniels spoke about the importance of the NIT to himself after two years of not making the postseason during his career, via Clemson Basketball:
KJ: "We're trying to win the NIT. It's my first postseason and we wanna go out with that winning feeling."— Clemson Basketball (@ClemsonMBB) March 28, 2014
With both teams able to limit the other on offense, whichever one is able to lengthen possessions at the end of the game and control the ball will come out on top. Thanks to a ball-handler like McDaniels who can drive at will and shows toughness, the Tigers will come out on top and play for the NIT title.
Predicted Winner: Clemson
No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 1 Florida State
While the NIT typically matches up teams from different conferences that haven't met prior to the postseason tournament, Minnesota and Florida State squared off earlier in the season.
Which team will win the NIT?
During the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Gophers traveled to Tallahassee to take on the Seminoles in what would end up being a 10-point victory for Minnesota by a final of 71-61. During that game, the Gophers' leading scorer, Andre Hollins, tallied a total of 21 points to earn the victory.
But lately, another Hollins has been the Gophers' catalyst on offense. Austin Hollins finished with a career-high 32 points against Southern Miss to help get the team into the semifinals.
First-year coach Richard Pitino spoke about the senior guard's contributions late in the season, per the Minnesota basketball Twitter account:
"He does a lot of things beside shooting the basketball that really helps this team. He's a great leader." Pitino, on Austin Hollins.— Minnesota Basketball (@GopherBBall) March 26, 2014
Speaking of Pitino, the 31-year-old son of Rick Pitino is extremely comfortable in Madison Square Garden. Not only is New York where his father was born, but the young coach also grew up watching his father coach in the building multiple times throughout his career.
Pitino spoke about his familiarity with the environment with Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press:
While the Seminoles do feature an impressive tandem in Aaron Thomas and Okaro White, they are going up against a Gophers team that has certified firepower in the Hollins duo that hasn't slowed down in the NIT. The 'Noles will once again fall to Minnesota to end their season.
But with Thomas rising as a star in the backcourt for the 'Noles, next season could be a special one for FSU after coming so close in the NIT.
Predicted Winner: Minnesota
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