The Washington State Cougars (22-12) will try and take one step closer to a NIT championship on Tuesday night when they play the Wichita State Shockers (27-8) in the first of two semifinal match-ups at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
At first glance this seems to me like the Cougars should have the upper hand. However the stats side by side show similar numbers even though the teams have done it two entirely different ways.
Wichita State is the more balanced and experienced group of individuals. No players on the Wichita State roster averages more than 26 minutes a game and they're top nine scorers are all either juniors or seniors.
Conversely for the Cougars, they have five players who average more than 26 minutes a game. The Cougars have more talent up top, but the Shockers have more depth.
Both teams averaged around 74 points a game this season and both shot about 47 percent from the field and 36 percent from three point range.
I personally can't figure out how the Shockers racked up 27 wins this year.
They went 14-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference this season and finished just a game behind regular season champion Missouri State. In the conference tournament, they were ousted by eventual tournament champ and lone conference representative in the NCAA tournament, Indiana State.
The Shockers schedule showcased a few big time opponents, including two teams that are in this year's Final Four, Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth. They also played San Diego State back in early December, but they lost all three games.
Against UConn during the Maui Invitational, the Shockers actually held a lead with under two minutes to go before falling to the Huskies 83-79. Those 83 points were the most they would give up all season except for one more time in an 83-69 defeat at San Diego State.
Could the Shockers be a victim of a soft conference? Possibly. But they haven't shown it in the first three games of this year's National Invitation Tournament.
After a 25 point route over Nebraska in their opening round game, the Shockers shocked the Virginia Tech Hokies 79-76 in overtime before cruising in the second half of their quarterfinal game against College of Charleston 82-75.
One thing that stood out to me on paper was through out the entire regular and post season, Wichita State has only had a player score 20 points during three separate occasions.
That is astonishing, especially coming from a Washington State perspective where Klay Thompson averaged more than 22 points on the season.
Who Will Win?
The Shockers were led this year by 6'8" senior forward J.T. Durley as he averaged 11 points and five rebounds a game. In fact, with Durley being the only Wichita State player to average double figures in points, he makes the Shockers just one of two teams in Division 1 basketball to have at least 27 wins and only one player average more than ten points a game.
The other team was Arizona and Derrick Williams averaging over 19 points while taking the Wildcats all the way to the elite eight.
The Shockers have ten players that have played in at least 32 games this season and all average over 13 minutes of play.
If you're the Cougars, how do you defend a team like that?
"They're really well-balanced. They keep coming at you with eight or nine, ten guys, and those ten guys contribute in a number of ways," said Cougar head coach Ken Bone during an interview with Vince Grippi of The Spokesman- Review.
The Cougars will need to bring their A-game from the opening tip tomorrow night.
That hasn't been a problem in the first three games for the Cougars but holding on at the end sure has been. Especially most recently when they defeated Northwestern in overtime after Abe Lodwick of the Cougars had two opportunities at the free throw line with essentially no time left on the clock but missed them both making the Cougars play an extra five minutes before sweating out a victory.
Should the Cougars win tomorrow night, they will have earned a NIT finals showdown Thursday night against the winner of the other semi-final game between Colorado and Alabama.
But to do so, they must defend the perimeter, which just happens to be something they excel at. After Durley, Wichita State's next top three scorers are all 6'5" or below in height and will not hesitate go shoot from long distance.
The Cougars have been tagged as a perimeter shooting team but it is the Shockers who have attempted more long bombs on the season.
A final thing to watch is offensive rebounding for the Shockers. 30 percent of their rebounds come on the offensive end and limiting those second chance opportunities will be vital if the Cougars don't want their season to end.
If it were to come to end, Cougar fans will begin an off-season of questions regarding players and whether they'll return or not, most notably Klay Thompson, but that's another story for another day.