SMU is on a mission.
The team ended the season ranked No. 25 in the nation but still found themselves on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament teams were announced. Larry Brown's squad could have sulked their way to an early exit in the NIT, but instead, they overcame their disappointment and reached the final.
“We haven’t had a lot of nice things happen at S.M.U. for a long, long time, so if we were fortunate enough to win a championship like this, and I was a part of it, it would be pretty neat,” Brown told Seth Berkman and Billy Witz of The New York Times after SMU beat Clemson 65-59 to reach the final.
SMU's task is no easy one. They'll face a streaky but talented Minnesota team that has won seven of nine and has a talented trio in Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu.
SMU comes in with the 17th most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom.com, but Minny's big three will pose a major challenge for the Mustangs.
It promises to be an excellent final. But how did we get here? Let's take a look back at this year's NIT ahead of the tournament's championship game.
The full NIT bracket can be seen here, via NCAA.com.
There weren't too many games of note as 11 of the 12 top seeds all advanced to the second round. St. John's wasn't one of them.
The top seed in Region 2 was upset by Robert Morris 89-78, a major shocker seeing as St. John's had won 11 of 15 games down the stretch, including wins over Creighton and Georgetown. That wasn't enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, of course, but it was enough to get them a No. 1 seed in the NIT.
But Robert Morris wasn't terribly interested in seedings as they stormed out to a 19-2 lead and were up 26 with just nine minutes remaining. St. John's showed a bit of pride after that, trimming the deficit considerably, but it was too little too late.
It didn't help that JaKarr Sampson only played four minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls. But this was Robert Morris' game from beginning to end, and they left little doubt that they were more than happy to be an NIT team.
SMU handled UC Irvine, 68-54, while Minnesota had a bit of trouble with High Point but ultimately prevailed 88-81.
There weren't many surprises in the second round, but Clemson's 50-49 win over Illinois had one of the more memorable sequences in the entire tournament. Jeffery Collins of the Associated Press (via CBS Sports) recapped the moment:
Rod Hall had the winning layup with 9.3 seconds left and then his quick thinking saved Clemson from potentially another late game disaster as the Tigers beat Illinois 50-49 in the second round of the NIT.
Tracy Abrams airballed a 3-pointer for the Illini with 1.7 seconds left, leaving Clemson (22-12) to inbound the ball under its own basket. The last time something similar happened on March 8, the Tigers turned it over and Pittsburgh tied the game on the way to an overtime win that may have done in Clemson's NCAA tournament chances.
This time the Tigers threw the ball long. It looked as if it was going to go over the endline without anyone touching it when Hall noted Landry Nnoko couldn't get there.
''Dude had Nnoko on a headlock down there. I had to get to it,'' said Hall, who sprinted, leaped and saved the ball, letting the clock run out.
It was a heck of a play from Hall, guaranteeing Clemson would move on. The Tigers were one of three No. 3 seeds to knock off the No. 2 seeds (Louisiana Tech beat Georiga and Southern Miss beat Missouri; only California moved on as a No. 2 seed by beating Arkansas).
Meanwhile, all three of the remaining top seeds (SMU, Florida State and Minnesota) moved on without much incident, though the Seminoles needed a rare offensive outburst to get past Georgetown, 101-90.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris—darlings of the opening round—were eliminated by Belmont in an 82-71 loss.
This is the round when things really got tight. Three of the four games were decided by five points or less, and the one that wasn't—Minnesota beat Southern Miss 81-73—was still a pretty close affair and included a star performance from Austin Hollins, who scored 32 points and was money from the free-throw line down the stretch.
In Region 1, SMU needed a Nic Moore three-pointer with 6.5 seconds left to knock off California 67-65. In Region 2, Clemson used a 12-2 run in the final 3:52 to get past Belmont 73-68. And in Region 4, Florida State squeaked by Louisiana Tech 78-75 behind Aaron Thomas' 21 points.
If the NIT's early rounds couldn't match the drama we saw early in the NCAA tournament, the quarterfinals certainly provided the intrigue. And as it turned out, the drama was just starting to heat up.
SMU had to rally from 13 down in the second half against Clemson. Minnesota needed overtime to get past Florida State. Yeah, the NIT kept the excitement coming.
Trailing 41-28 early in the second half, SMU went on a 17-4 run to tie things up at 45 with 10:30 remaining in the game. They wouldn't take their first lead until the 5:09 mark, going up 55-53 and setting up a tight finish.
Clemson went up 60-59 with eight seconds remaining, but Markus Kennedy got behind the defense on the inbounds play and re-took the lead for SMU with three of his 21 points (he was fouled on the play and hit the free throw).
That was the decisive moment that sent SMU into the title game against Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers played in an equally tight game, needing overtime to beat the Seminoles. Austin Hollins and Mathieu led Minnesota with 17 points apiece as the Golden Gophers overcame blowing a 15-point lead in regulation and Devon Bookert's game-tying three for Florida State as time expired, sending the game to overtime.
There is something to be said for going into overtime with absolutely no momentum and emerging victorious.
SMU will be the favorites. The Mustangs probably should have earned an NCAA tournament bid, have one of the most iconic coaches in all of basketball and play excellent defense. And we all know the old cliche about defense versus offense.
Still, Minnesota has proven to be both resilient and dangerous in this tournament. And while they aren't as good defensively as SMU, they do force their fair share of turnovers and average 7.4 steals per game.
It's hard to ask for much more than two No. 1 seeds battling it out for the title. Both of these teams have overcome tough tasks to get here, so expect a tight, competitive, intense matchup between squads that have shown excellent talent and determination during the NIT.