The Minnesota Golden Gophers are back in the NIT championship for the second time in three years after surviving Florida State's comeback bid in overtime.
Now, Richard Pitino's squad is just 40 minutes away from earning its 25th win of the season. But standing in their way is another No. 1 seed, Larry Brown's resurgent SMU Mustangs, who are eyeing not only an NIT title, but their 28th win of the year following a come-from-behind win over Clemson in the semifinals.
Trailing by 13 points early in the second half, SMU would turn up the energy, shutting down Clemson down the stretch and outscoring the Tigers 39-21 in the second half to earn a six-point win. Brown called it one of the best halves the team played all season, per ESPNNewYork.com's Kieran Darcy:
I’m really proud of my team. I think the first half, Clemson did about as well as any team that we played against. They controlled the tempo, they had much more energy than us, they executed great. And we didn’t have much to say at halftime, except we had to match their energy and possibly play harder than them. I thought it was the best half we played all year.
SMU will look for that positive energy to carry over into Thursday's title clash with Minnesota, who have a history of success at this stage having reached the NIT championship game four times and having won it all twice since 1993.
When: Thursday, April 3 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Live Stream: WatchESPN
NIT Championship Prediction
Both SMU and Minnesota have proved to be dangerous teams capable of adapting to their opponent and situation. However, the Mustangs will have the edge in this matchup thanks to their rebounding prowess and field-goal efficiency.
The Mustangs, who are led by 6'9" sophomore Markus Kennedy on the backboard, average more than 36 rebounds per game as a team and crash the glass from start to finish, boasting an offensive rebound percentage of 35.1. Watch for the Gophers bigs to struggle against Kennedy and have a tough time keeping him off the glass.
On top of the rebounding advantage, SMU is a better shooting team overall, ranking inside the top 20 nationally in field-goal percentage.
On the other side, Minnesota's leading scorer, Andre Hollins, is shooting just 38 percent from the floor this season and has been struggling since the Big Ten tournament. The junior guard was just 3-of-10 from the floor against Florida State in the NIT semifinals and is a combined 7-of-34 from the field in the NIT.
SMU's leading scorer Nic Moore has connected on eight three-point attempts alone in four NIT games.
Therefore, with the Mustangs imposing themselves on the glass and cashing in on the offensive end, expect SMU to finish the season strong as they stick it to the NCAA tournament selection committee with an impressive championship victory in the NIT.
MVP Prediction: Markus Kennedy, F, SMU
As already mentioned, at 6'9", 245 pounds, Kennedy is a handful for opposing teams on the glass and will be Minnesota's biggest concern on Thursday.
What's more, the Philadelphia native has been getting stronger and discovering a rhythm as the NIT wears on. After scoring just nine points in the Mustangs' first-round win over UC Irvine, he's scored in double figures in each of the past three games, tying his season-high with 21 points against Clemson on Tuesday.
The Dallas Morning News' EJ Holland explains Kennedy's ascent to stardom this season:
When starting center Yanick Moreira went down early in the season, Kennedy stepped up and developed into one of the premier big men in the [American Athletic] conference. Kennedy lost a lot of weight while sitting out a year due to transfer rules and become a completely different player under Larry Brown. Kennedy has been a beast in the NIT and SMU’s clear-cut MVP.
With Kennedy's confidence at an all-time high, he's sure to make his presence felt on both ends of the floor on Thursday.
Watch for him to lead the way for SMU against Minnesota en route to earning an NIT championship as well as MVP honors to go along with it.