If you aren't compelled by the NIT championship, there's a good chance you don't like basketball. Or fun.
The secondary tournament tends to receive a lot of flak (ha ha, "Not Invited Tournament." Get it? It's funny), but don't think for one second these kids aren't playing at a high level or giving anything but maximum effort while they're on the court.
Take the semifinals for instance.
SMU trailed Clemson by 12 at halftime, but instead of giving up in the "meaningless" tournament, the Mustangs rallied back furiously, tying the game within 10 minutes and eventually holding on for the win. Minnesota could have also crumpled after Malik Smith missed two late free throws that could have sealed the game and Devon Bookert scored his fifth, sixth and seventh points in the last 21 seconds with a three to send the game into overtime. But the Golden Gophers found a way to win after the crushing finish in regulation.
"This is a quality, quality championship," SMU head coach Larry Brown told reporters after the game, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com.
Not only are these two tremendously talented teams—SMU was the biggest snub from the Big Dance, while Minnesota owns a 13-point win over Final Four contender Wisconsin—playing extremely well, but there are intriguing connections to Madison Square Garden.
The Hall of Famer Brown, of course, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent a season coaching the New York Knicks.
"I love this place," he said. "I wanted our guys to experience what I grew up looking forward to."
Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino, meanwhile, was a young boy when his father Rick was head coach of the Knicks in the late 1980s.
Both head coaches are back at the Mecca of Basketball, and both are at the helm of very good basketball teams.
Date: Thursday, April 3, 2014
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
SMU Player to Watch: Nic Moore
Nic Moore has been the engine behind SMU's efficient offensive attack—the Mustangs are 38th in the country (subscription required) in effective field-goal percentage—this season. The sophomore transfer from Illinois State averages 13.5 points and 4.8 assists per contest, ranking in the top 100 nationally in both true-shooting percentage and assist rate.
The ultra-quick point guard is also capable of hitting big shots, as Cal found out the hard way in the quarterfinals
As Brown put it, via the Pioneer Press' Marcus Fuller, the matchup between Moore and Deandre Mathieu will be one to watch:
Andre and Austin Hollins join Mathieu to give the Golden Gophers an extremely talented backcourt, and how Moore, an AAC first-teamer, plays on both ends of the court will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.
Pay close attention, because there's a good chance you'll be watching one of 2014-15's best guards.
Minnesota Player to Watch: Maurice Walker
As we already somewhat alluded to, much of Minnesota's offensive production tends to come from its backcourt. But when Maurice Walker is playing well, the Golden Gophers have an inside-outside assault that is difficult to stop.
Walker doesn't usually start, and after being suspended for the first six games of the season, he struggled to crack the rotation for significant minutes once Big Ten play started.
But during many of the team's biggest wins, Walker, an immensely improved player since December, has shined.
In the victory over Wisconsin, he had 18 points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes. In a thrilling win over Iowa, he tallied eight points, six rebounds, a steal and a block. Against Southern Mississippi in the quarterfinals, he filled up the stat sheet with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers.
Finally, during Tuesday's win over Florida State, he started for an injured Elliott Eliason and struggled from the field but hit six free throws in overtime to carry the Golden Gophers to the win.
"He hit big free throws," Pitino said, via Fuller. "Certainly, the next step for him is being able to finish with some contact."
Eliason is questionable right now, but whether Walker starts or comes off the bench, it will be key for the Golden Gophers' best offensive post player to be aggressive and go after Markus Kennedy on the interior.
The backcourts are pretty evenly matched, but with Eliason—the team's best interior defender and rebounder—either out or not likely at 100 percent, Kennedy, who had 21 points and nine rebounds against Clemson, is going to be able to do whatever he wants on the inside.
Throw in SMU's superior defense—Brown's squad ranks 17th in America in defensive efficiency, 14th in effective field-goal percentage defense, ninth in two-point percentage defense, 27th in block percentage and 19th in steal percentage—and the Golden Gophers are going to have to get real hot from the outside to win.
They certainly have the firepower to do just that, but the Mustangs will get enough to stops to bring home some hardware.
Prediction: SMU 66, Minnesota 62
Note: All advanced stats courtesy of kenpom.com (subscription needed), unless noted otherwise
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