The NIT doesn't have the prestige of the NCAA tournament, but it's still an invaluable proving ground for those who missed out on the Big Dance and an opportunity for teams to continue competing in the postseason.
Tuesday's semifinals were held at one of the premier sports venues in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Third-seeded Clemson was the only squad of the four remaining that wasn't a No. 1 seed, and the Tigers were eliminated by SMU, who was coached to a comeback win by the legendary Larry Brown.
In the second showdown of the evening, Florida State and Minnesota are slated to square off after winning their respective clusters of the bracket as favorites. Richard Pitino is making an impact with the Golden Gophers in his first year as coach, seeking to keep his program on the ascent versus the strong Seminoles.
Below is an overview of the championship schedule, along with the NIT semifinal scores and analysis.
|No. 1 SMU||No. 3 Clemson||65-59|
|No. 1 Minnesota||No. 1 Florida State||67-64 (OT)|
|Time (ET)||Matchup||TV||Live Stream|
|7 p.m.||No. 1 SMU vs. No. 1 Minnesota||ESPN||Watch ESPN|
SMU 65, Clemson 59
It appears that the Mustangs are determined to prove that they were snubbed from the NCAA tournament with the run they're on in the NIT.
Even a 12-point halftime deficit couldn't keep SMU down, and they cruised in the final 20 minutes, outscoring Clemson 39-21. Brown called it the Mustangs' best half of the season, per the Post & Courier's Aaron Brenner:
Larry Brown: "We didn’t have much to say at halftime. That (second half) was probably our best half of the year."— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) April 2, 2014
Sophomore forward Markus Kennedy led the charge for his victorious SMU squad with 21 points, nine rebounds and three steals. It was a total team win for the Mustangs, who frustrated the Tigers down the stretch and took advantage of an offensively-challenged Clemson crew.
Forward Rod Hall stepped up for the Tigers for a team-high 18 points—almost double his season average—but it wasn't enough. Shot-blocking specialist K.J. McDaniel is Clemson's typical lead scorer, but he managed just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting.
Jimmy Burch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram praised the job Brown did to put his players in position to succeed:
Once again, Larry Brown showed what a terrific coach he is tonight for #SMU. Helped Ponies rally from 12 down at half to beat Clemson 65-59— Jimmy Burch (@Jimmy_Burch) April 2, 2014
Now SMU gets to look forward to potentially winning a postseason championship in Brown's second year as coach. After a sub-.500 campaign in 2012-13, the Mustangs have no doubt responded, and Brown has gotten enough talent to Dallas to make the team competitive on a national scale.
There is a strong foundation for SMU to build on regardless of what happens in Thursday's final. The fact that the Mustangs weren't demoralized after being left out of the NCAA tourney and had the mettle to bounce back from Tuesday's slow start is a testament to the current strong nucleus the squad has.
Minnesota 67, Florida State 64
The Seminoles rallied just as SMU did from a double-digit deficit at the halftime intermission to force overtime, but it ultimately wasn't enough to knock off Minnesota.
Senior guard Ian Miller's potential tying three-pointer went off the back iron at the buzzer, sending the Golden Gophers to the NIT title game to face the Mustangs.
if Minnesota wins the NIT finals will be a coaching matchup of 73 yr old Larry Brown vs 31 yr old Richard Pitino.— Kelly Patrick (@thekellypatrick) April 2, 2014
Deandre Mathieu and Austin Hollins scored 17 apiece for Minnesota in its winning effort. It wasn't a pretty victory at all, as both squads shot under 40 percent from the field. The main difference was the Golden Gophers' proficiency from beyond the arc, as they were 9-of-20 shooting from downtown compared to Florida State missing 14 of its 18 attempts.
WXYV Louisville radio host Kelly Patrick noted the disparity in age between Brown and Pitino, who will square off in an intriguing championship coaching matchup:
high ceiling. Everyone returns plus Mudiay arrives RT @Naiveberserk: Given the NIT berth what do you expect from SMU next year?— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) April 1, 2014
Regardless of what happens in the NIT title clash, there is reason for optimism on the horizon for both these programs.
Pitino is making the most of his big opportunity in a power conference. The Big Ten was tough as usual this season, and Minnesota went just 8-10 in conference play. However, the Golden Gophers are showing grit and continuing to battle for their young coach to send their seniors out right.
Toppling the Mustangs is going to be a tall task. CBS Sports expert Seth Davis hints at what lies ahead for SMU next season, including the arrival of 5-star point guard Emmanuel Mudiay:
Since they have come this far after being snubbed, it's hard to imagine that even a younger Mustangs squad won't emerge with the trophy.
Brown's superior experience and ability to prepare for an opponent should give SMU an edge, though Pitino is no stranger to scrutiny due to his father's coaching prowess. He's had a big basketball reputation to live up to, and has done an admirable job doing so.