NIT Tournament 2018: Bracket and Schedule for Semifinals in New York

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2018

Utah's Sedrick Barefield (0) signals after making a 3-point basket against Saint Mary's during overtime in an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the NIT, Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Moraga, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Four NIT teams are Big Apple-bound after securing their spots in next week's semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Quarterfinal play wrapped Wednesday night with second-seeded Utah outlasting top-seeded Saint Mary's in overtime, after fourth-seeded Western Kentucky picked off second-seeded Oklahoma State. Two other four seeds, Mississippi State and Penn State, punched their Final Four tickets Tuesday.

All four semifinalists lost double-digit games before the tourney, so it's not like any is the model of consistency. But with each one hitting its stride at the right time, there should be some good action inside the Mecca of Basketball.

Let's run through the semifinal schedule and zero in on the two matchups.

              

Bracket

Be sure to check out NCAA.com for the full bracket.

                    

NIT Semifinals Schedule

Tuesday, March 27

No. 2 Utah vs. No. 4 Western Kentucky, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

No. 4 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Penn State, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN

                 

Matchup Breakdown

Utah vs. Western Kentucky

John Minchillo/Associated Press

The Utes laid an egg in the early stages of their opener. They saw head coach Larry Krystkowiak tossed before intermission and faced an 11-point deficit late in the second quarter to seventh-seeded UC Davis.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Utah since, but that seemed to engage Krystkowiak's players. It took the second half 40-26 to score a double-digit victory and then followed up with a 24-point shellacking of third-seeded LSU.

The Utes had trouble finding their offense against the top-seeded Gaels before totaling 20 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime, which they took by a 13-4 count.

"We scrapped and it was all about making shots," Krystkowiak said, per Dirk Facer of the Deseret News. "It's fantastic. ... I thought our guys played really hard and smart and together."

The Utes don't dominate either end (58th on offense, 57th on defense), but this backcourt is explosive. Junior guard Sedrick Barefield totaled 36 points over the last two rounds, shooting 52 percent from the field and 8-of-14 outside. Senior guard Justin Bibbins finally had a cold shooting effort his last time out (4-of-12, 1-of-7 from three), but the 5'8" Pac-12 first-teamer had a three-game streak of 20-plus points earlier this month.

Western Kentucky has the worst defense of the semifinalists (82nd), but it counters with the best offense (33rd). That's been enough to take down fifth-seeded Boston College, top-seeded USC and Oklahoma State in succession.

The Hilltoppers are averaging 83.3 points at the tournament, a number with senior forward Justin Johnson's fingerprints all over it. He's their top scorer (15.4 points per game), rebounder (9.4) and three-point shooter (41.5), and he looked the part by opening the NIT with 42 points and 18 boards over the first two rounds combined.

What made the Oklahoma State win special, though, is that Johnson had his worst scoring (10) and rebounding (5) game in more than a month. That forced others to step up, with freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth delivering 30 points, and senior forward Dwight Coleby tallying a 16-point, 13-rebound double-double.

Maintaining that depth will be important, because Utah has the firepower to exploit Western Kentucky's leaky defense. But the Utes aren't exactly stone walls themselves, and the red-hot Hilltoppers show no signs of slowing down.

                 

Mississippi State vs. Penn State

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 03: Tony Carr #10 of the Penn State Nittany Lions handles the ball on offense against the Purdue Boilermakers during the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 3, 2018 in New York City. The P
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

No team had a more impressive quarterfinal than Ben Howland's Bulldogs. Mississippi State demolished second-seeded Louisville 79-56, getting double-digit scoring efforts from four different players, including a 19-point, 14-rebound gem from junior leader Quinndary Weatherspoon.

"I can't say enough about our entire team and just how hard they worked to prepare for this," Howland said, per Nate Bryan of the Clarion Ledger. "We wanted to go to New York City and go to the Garden—badly. And they displayed that in how they played today."

Mississippi State struggles to shoot the long ball consistency (only one of its rotation players shoots above 35 percent outside), and that can make the offense prone to droughts. But its backcourt can pressure defenders off the dribble and find success inside the arc. Weatherspoon and his younger brother Nick both average 11-plus points despite having sub-32 perimeter percentages.

Penn State can hit its own offensive lulls, especially if sophomore scoring guard Tony Carr is having an off night.

That doesn't happen often—he's the highest-scoring player left in this tournament at 19.7 points per game—but he did open the event with a two-point, 1-of-12 disaster. Penn State still escaped but managed with just 63 points on 36.7 percent shooting against Temple's 81st-ranked defense.

Carr has predictably righted the ship with 49 points and 21 free throws over the last two outings. And the Nittany Lions have followed his lead by adding at least 10 points to their final total in each round.

If the underwhelming offensive marks don't give it away, this will be a defensive grind.

Mississippi State ranks 43 spots higher on defense (32nd) than offense (75th). For Penn State, the gap is 33 (18th on defense, 51st the other way). Both clubs also prefer playing at glacial paces, as each sits outside the top 200 in adjusted tempo.

This could play out as a throwback slugfest, and if it does, expect it to go down to the wire.

                 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of KenPom.comESPN.com and NCAA.com.

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