The 2014 NIT started with 32 teams, but now only two are left after a pair of thrilling semifinal games on Tuesday night. Even though they blew a 15-point lead and didn't hit a field goal for all of overtime, the Golden Gophers of Minnesota are still alive thanks to some hot shooting from Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu as well as some clutch free throws by Maurice Walker. They defeated Florida State 67-64.
Meanwhile, the SMU Mustangs, led by legendary coach Larry Brown, overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to race past Clemson in a 65-59 victory. Sophomore big man Markus Kennedy continued a great tourney run with 21 points and nine rebounds, while point guard Nic Moore scored 13 points and handed out four assists.
After an impressive regular season performance from SMU, its appearance in the NIT title game is hardly a surprise. The Mustangs posted a 15-17 record a season ago, but in 2014 they seemingly came out of nowhere to compete in the American Athletic Conference. The team boasts two wins over Final Four participant UConn this year, as well as a one win each over Cincinnati and Memphis. Only a soft non-conference schedule and a disappointing conference tournament loss to Houston held the Mustangs out of the big dance.
You can understand, then, why the team is playing with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Kennedy in particular has been a force to be reckoned with. After he struggled against UC Irvine in the tournament opener, he's scored at least 13 points and shot at least 50 percent from the field in his last three games. That includes a quarterfinal win over Cal in which Kennedy scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and shot 8-for-10 on field goals.
Moore is another player whom the Gophers will have a tough time defending. He's not a big man at 5'9" and 170 pounds, but not many guards in the country are so adept at both passing and shooting a basketball. Moore averages 13.5 points and 4.8 assists per contest, and he ranks 75th nationally in KenPom's assist rate stat. Add to that his ability to make 44 percent of three-pointers, and Moore is a tough player to guard no matter where he is on the court.
The biggest problem for Minnesota on Thursday night, though, might be the SMU defense. Brown always seems to coach a great defensive team, and these Mustangs are no exception. They have held opponents below a 45 percent effective field goal percentage all season, and in conference play, opponents failed to even make 31 percent of their three-pointers. That's going to make it tough on a Gopher squad that feasted from beyond the arc in the first half versus Florida State.
Something that may work out for Minnesota in this game is the turnover battle. SMU finished last in the AAC in turnover percentage, with primary ball handlers Moore and Nick Russell losing the ball on over 20 percent of their possessions. This is something that the Gophers were able to take advantage of against Florida State. The Seminoles, another turnover-prone team, turned the ball over 18 times on Tuesday night.
So who will win the NIT championship this season? I'm pretty impressed that the Gophers were able to get past Florida State in the semifinals, and not just because I picked against them. Walker shot just 1-for-7 from the field and impressive freshman Joey King fouled out in under 10 minutes of playing time. Those are two tough obstacles to overcome.
However, I still think SMU will defeat Minnesota in the final. The Mustangs were a major snub on Selection Sunday, and despite some head-scratching losses this season, their big wins are more impressive to me than Minnesota's big wins. SMU wins a close one 72-70.