Although the main focus of the college basketball universe over the past couple weeks was the NCAA tournament, the NIT has enjoyed its fair share of drama as well. The stretch of entertaining action should carry right into the title game between SMU and Minnesota.
No game has been decided by more than eight points since the quarterfinals began. It shows that even though two top seeds from their respective regions reached the championship game, the level of competition was high.
Before the teams take center stage at Madison Square Garden in New York on Thursday night, they deserve a lot of credit.
Both the Mustangs and Golden Gophers were on the NCAA tournament bubble right down to the wire and missed out on Selection Sunday. It's not always easy to rebound from that type of disappointment and refocus on making a deep run in the NIT.
In the short term, it's all about capturing the championship and the excitement that goes along with ending the season on a winning note, which few teams get to do. But for the programs, the bigger picture is the impact it has looking forward to next season.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports stated it can help provide a springboard for next fall:
SMU and Minnesota will play Thursday night in the NIT Finals at MSG. Should be a springboard for both programs heading into next season.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 2, 2014
Fran Fraschilla of ESPN echoed that sentiment, saying it equates to added experience:
NIT is about building for the future and using tourney as spring board. Exactly what's happening with SMU and Minnesota. Good experience!— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 2, 2014
SMU is coming off a game that illustrates the long-view notion. It was down 12 at halftime against Clemson in the semifinals before fighting back to outscore the Tigers by 18 in the second half. That's something the players can remember in tough times next season as they push for the Big Dance again.
It was a thoroughly impressive display from Larry Brown's squad. Kieran Darcy of ESPN New York passed along comments from the longtime coach, who said the second half represented the best basketball they played all season:
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.
Markus Kennedy and Co. will need to keep playing at that level if they want to knock off a talented Minnesota team. The Gophers have been streaky throughout the season and rode a strong stretch of play to the final, having won seven of their past nine games.
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The offensive charge is led by the trio of Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu. They combined to score 47 of the team's 67 points in the overtime win over Florida State to reach the championship game.
For SMU, which KenPom.com ranks 17th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, the key is taking away one of those three big scorers. The Gophers don't have a ton of depth, with no other player averaging more than eight points per contest.
It puts a little extra pressure on Nic Moore and Nick Russell to defend the perimeter. They have been up to the challenge so far in the tournament, though.
Ultimately, this is another game that should go right down to the wire. Given the fact SMU is outscoring opponents by more than 12 points in the second half during the NIT, it should find a way to come out on top to win the title.
SMU 71, Minnesota 66