The SMU Mustangs are just one win away from validating their beef with the NCAA tournament selection committee after being snubbed from Big Dance last month, as pointed out by SNY.tv basketball insider Adam Zagoria:
Larry Brown's resurgent squad has reached the 2014 National Invitation Tournament championship game, where they will take on fellow top seed Minnesota on Thursday night in New York. Richard Pitino's Golden Gophers were also a bubble team heading into Selection Sunday, but weren't expected to earn an at-large bid after posting a losing conference record.
Despite their disappointment, both teams have capitalized on their postseason berths, playing into April and putting themselves in position to conclude the year with a rare championship and celebration.
With tipoff right around the corner, let's take a closer look at the keys to victory in Thursday's NIT championship.
When: Thursday, April 3 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: SMU (-3), according to Covers.com.
Gophers Must Get Hot Early
SMU is one of the top defensive teams in the entire country and has a foolproof game plan for success: The Mustangs win with defense and rebounding.
Therefore, it's imperative that Minnesota starts fast offensively in order to develop confidence and avoid falling behind on the scoreboard. Clemson was able to put up 38 points and open up a 12-point lead after one half against SMU in the semifinals, but wound up shooting just 24 percent in the second half and finishing with just 59 total points in a loss.
Mustangs guard Sterling Brown explained how his team turned things around in the second half, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com): "We did what we usually do—just crank it up a little more."
Keep in mind that few teams in the country hold opponents to fewer points than the Mustangs, who rank 22nd nationally in fewest points per game allowed, surrendering just over 62 per outing. On top of that, SMU ranks sixth in America in opponent's field-goal percentage, allowing teams to score on just 38.3 percent of their field-goal attempts.
Over the course of 40 minutes, SMU's dominant team defense is sure cause problems for Minnesota. But if the Golden Gophers are able to generate offense early, taking advantage of their open looks and opportunities in transition, they'll be under far less pressure to execute in the half court against one of the country's top defenses in crunch time.
Will Keith Frazier Show Up?
SMU freshman sharpshooter Keith Frazier is an X-factor for the Mustangs but was nowhere to be found in their semifinal win over Clemson. The 6'5" guard played 12 minutes off the bench but didn't attempt a single shot.
Frazier hit 5-of-7 three-point attempts in recent NIT wins over California and LSU, showcasing his touch from long range. If the first-year player can shake loose from Minnesota's defense on Thursday, his shooting prowess could be the difference for SMU, as pointed out by The Dallas Morning News' EJ Holland:
Frazier is a deadly shooter and although he’s inconsistent, he could make a major impact in the championship game. One thing about Frazier is he never loses confidence.
The Dallas native is shooting better than 40.6 percent from downtown this season and has 41 made threes coming into Thursday's championship game.
Does Minnesota Have an Answer for Markus Kennedy?
One player who's certain to show up on Thursday night is SMU sophomore forward Markus Kennedy, who has blossomed into a star for the Mustangs this season.
Kennedy led the Mustangs with 21 points and nine rebounds in their comeback win over Clemson on Tuesday and will be Minnesota's No. 1 target defensively on Thursday. Kennedy is a lethal scorer on the interior, shooting 53.6 percent from the floor this season, and has been remarkably efficient thus far in the NIT, converting on 22-of-35 combined shots over SMU's past three games.
Holland points out that Kennedy has been SMU's MVP this postseason:
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 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.
Clearly, Minnesota must find a way to slow Kennedy down and force him to take tougher shots in order to have a chance at victory.
UC Irvine proved in the first round of the NIT that it's possible to defend Kennedy. However, slowing him down while keeping him off the foul line will be a tall task for the Gophers, who aren't known for their defense.
The bottom line is that SMU is the better team in this matchup. The Mustangs boast more weapons and a better formula for success. SMU is also coached by a Hall of Famer in Brown, who has been in every type of situation a team can find itself in and is sure to pull all of the right strings on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Minnesota relies heavily on its outside shooting, with three-pointers accounting for nearly one-third of the Gophers' offense. Still, if Pitino's squad can force Kennedy to struggle and avoid letting Frazier get hot, it'll have a shot to spring the upset.
However, this matchup clearly favors SMU, a team determined to stick it to the selection committee.
Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter.
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