If the NIT championship plays out like the semifinals did, we are in for a great night of basketball.
Larry Brown's SMU Mustangs advanced after overcoming a 12-point deficit to score a 65-59 win over Clemson. Meanwhile, Richard Pitino's Minnesota Golden Gophers and Florida State needed overtime before the Golden Gophers pulled out a 67-64 victory.
Now both teams are just one game away from the championship. Granted, being NIT champions is a bit of a hollow title, but it foreshadows success to come. Former coach and current ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla pointed out the current success of the past four winners of this tournament:
So NIT title is meaningless but three of last four champs were in Sweet 16 and fourth, Wichita State, undefeated until they met Kentucky.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 2, 2014
Adding drama to this matchup are the two coaches. As ESPN highlights in the following tweets, this is a big opportunity for both coaches:
If SMU wins the NIT tmr night, Larry Brown would be the only coach to win an NBA (Pistons), NCAA (Kansas) and NIT championship.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 2, 2014
If Minnesota wins the NIT tomorrow night, Richard Pitino would become the 8th coach ever to win an NIT title in his first season at a school— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 2, 2014
In the end, this matchup will speak for itself, as it's destined to provide a quality game. Whichever team does a better job of executing the following keys will pull out the win.
Minnesota's Keys to Victory
Get Austin Hollins Rolling Early
Senior guard Austin Hollins has had a good but inconsistent career with Minnesota. He is surging to the finish, however. Hollins has been the biggest reason the Gophers have advanced to the final.
He started off the tournament in rather pedestrian fashion, but he's been on fire the last two games.
In the Elite Eight, he went for a career-high 32 points on 8-of-14 shooting in an 81-73 victory over Southern Miss. He followed that up by dropping 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
Hollins was so sparked that he provided this hustle block in the GIF provided by CJZero:
When Hollins is hot, he can drain shots from anywhere on the court and take a game over. Minnesota must help him get hot by drawing up plays for him early that get him some easy looks.
Don't Give Up Easy Looks
SMU is not a good free-throw shooting team. For the season, the Mustangs are shooting just 68.3 percent from the free-throw line.
SMU has a big and physical team, and it will force the ball into the paint as often as possible.
The Gophers must not allow SMU to convert that into easy buckets, and when the Mustangs have a point-blank look, the Gophers should send them to the line.
Minnesota has a deep team and played 10 against Florida State in the semifinal. It needs to use that depth and the fouls that come with it in this game.
SMU's Keys to Victory
Take Care of the Rock
For the season, SMU averages 13 turnovers per game. The turnovers are fairly evenly distributed as seven players average at least one turnover per contest.
That issue could be especially problematic in this one. Minnesota averages eight steals per game. Austin Hollins leads the way with 1.9 per game. He is one of three guards who average at least 0.9 steals per game.
This will require sure ball-handling from SMU guards Nic Moore and Nick Russell. The pair are capable of doing that but have had their issues. For the season they averaged 2.4 and 2.3 turnovers respectively.
The Mustangs are not built to thrive in transition, and if they cough the ball up too many times, they will find themselves wearing down in an up-and-down game.
Get off to a Fast Start
SMU has survived in this tournament despite getting off to slow starts. In three of its four NIT games, SMU has trailed at halftime.
At halftime in this tournament, the Mustangs have trailed Clemson by 12 last round, trailed LSU by five in the second round and were behind UCI by a point in the first round. The Mustangs have survived by cranking up their defense and wearing opponents down, but that can only take them so far.
Minnesota will bury them if they get off to a similar slow start.