Preview: NIT Finals...It's Personal
The 2003-2004 basketball season will conclude for the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers on April 1st, later than anyone imagined just a few short weeks ago. The miracle turn-around that has caught everyone by surprise will come to an end: and, is there a more fitting venue than under the storied rafters of Madison Square Garden? Is there a more fitting opponent for Coach Waters and his Scarlet Knights than Coach Amaker and his Michigan Wolverines?
Tommy Amaker became the 15th men's basketball coach at the University of Michigan on March 29, 2001. It's a day Coach Waters remembers all too well: after all, it wasn't the dream job for just Coach Amaker. Rutgers' head man (hired as Rutgers' 15th men's basketball coach less than 2 weeks later) had been eyeing the Wolverine job and considered himself as the right man - and who could actually blame him? He had led Kent State, a nobody before his arrival, to its 3rd straight 20-win season, en route to piling up a 71-25 record during that time. So of course, it was the young, brash Tommy Amaker, with the Duke and Mike Krzyzewski pedigree, and the backing of the always-vocal Dick Vitale, that was offered the job. "Tommy Amaker is a good name. I will agree with that. But tell me, what has he done? He has not done anything, to me," said Waters at the time. Was Coach Amaker the right man for the job? No doubt he wasn't - ask any Michigan follower. But did Coach Waters get the job? Absolutely not - and don't bet for one second that Gary Waters has forgotten: it would be inhuman if he did.
Rutgers versus Michigan, for the National Invitation Tournament Championship. This game, significant as it is for both schools, is personal.
Michigan boasts one senior in their starting five - Bernard Robinson Jr. (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg). Bernard has played in all 33 Wolverine games this year. Long and athletic, Bernard is the only Michigan player to have scored at least 1400 points, tally over 600 rebounds, to go along with 300 assists and have at least 150 steals. Nicknamed by the Maize and Blue as Mr. Everything, Bernard is second on the team in points per game (12.2) and first in rebounds (5.7). At 6'6" and 210 pounds, he will likely be guarding Ricky Shields.
Key Match-up No.1: Bernard Robinson vs Ricky Shields
Robinson is long and athletic and will pose a serious problem for Ricky Shields if he decides to hang out on the perimeter too long. While Michigan has had trouble with their perimeter defense this year, Rutgers' guards, led by Ricky Shields, need to be selective in their attempts from downtown. Ricky will need to use his greatest weapon to shoot over the taller Robinson: the dribble-drive.
Michigan's beef boasts an impressive combination of size, speed and athleticism: Freshman, C/F Courtney Sims (team leader in blocks), Sophomore, C/F Chris Hunter, Sophomore, C/F Graham Brown, Freshman, F Brent Petway and Junior, F, J.C. Mathis (out of Brooklyn, NY) are all 6'8" and above.
Key Match-up No.2: Michigan front line vs Rutgers front line
Herve Lamizana, Sean Axani, and Adrian Hill will face a wide array of big, fast and athletic bodies. Michigan, though without one dominating big body rebounds very well as a team. Sean Axani will have to work twice as hard to match Tuesday's magnificent rebounding effort and Herve Lamizana must assert himself on the glass. On the year, Michigan has out-rebounded their opponents by more than 4 rebounds per game.
Michigan has 9 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game on the season. Rutgers cannot match the front court depth of the Wolverines. If Herve Lamizana and Adrian Hill start to pile up the fouls, Rutgers will have to rely on a much less athletic combination of Sean Axani and Byron Joynes - that is a front court battle Michigan would dominate. Michigan will run up and down on Axani and Joynes all day.
Key Match-up No.3: Michigan depth vs Rutgers depth
It is imperative Rutgers' front court players, primarily Herve Lamizana and Adrian Hill, stay out of trouble. Rutgers will not be able to match the depth of the Wolverines. They must stay away from a battle of attrition at all costs - Rutgers will need to adapt to the pace of the officiating quickly and limit dumb fouls.
Michigan shoots 45% from the field as a team and limits its opponents to 41% shooting from the field. Quincy Douby is shooting 46% from beyond the three-point line in the NIT and along with Ricky Shields has been the only dependable offensive scoring threat for Rutgers.
Key Match-up No.4: Michigan shooting vs Rutgers shooting
Though Michigan was bigger and more athletic than Oregon, it was their blistering shooting that put the Ducks away - the Wolverines shot 53% from the field, significantly higher than their norm. Their frenzied defense limited Oregon to just 35% shooting from the field. Both the Wolverines and the Scarlet Knights come into the NIT Championship with a happy trigger-finger, nailing practically everything from everywhere. This game will be no different - post-season contests typically come down to who gets hot last. In Rutgers' semifinal win Quincy Douby got hot in overtime as his nemesis fouled out. Will he and Ricky continue to lead the Knights - they are averaging 24.0 and 19.3 points per game. If Rutgers is to have a shooter's chance, Quincy and Ricky will need to continue this trend - they need to combine for 40+ for the game.
Madison Square Garden accommodated between 12- and 14-thousand college basketball fans for the NIT semifinals. More than half of that were Rutgers fans - boisterous, lively, and animated as always, they did their best impression of RAC-on-Wheels as they managed to simulate the RAC-mosphere thirty miles away from campus.
Key Match-up No.5: Michigan intensity vs Rutgers intensity
It is no secret that Rutgers' Scarlet Knights feed on the intensity of the RAC. With between 10- and 15-thousand Scarlet-clad fans expected to fill the Garden it is essential that the 6th man does its best to liven up the World's Most Famous Arena. This should be as close a home game as Rutgers can have. It often takes that extra bit of intangible to make up the difference, that difference you can't find in the box score, or that mis-match in matchups: it is what is not measured but what is almost always needed to lift a team to the top. That extra intangible is intensity - Rutgers at Madison Square Garden, the RAC-on-Wheels, makes its debut April 1st, 2004.
Notes: Rutgers is the only team in the country (Big 10 schools excluded) to face 4 Big 10 teams. Rutgers and Michigan have 3 common opponents:
|Rutgers 43 - Wisconsin 55||Michigan 63 - Wisconsin 74; Michigan 71 - Wisconsin 59|
|Rutgers 60 - Penn State 47||Michigan 69 - Penn State 59|
|Rutgers 80 - Northwestern 75||Michigan 78 - Northwestern 54; Michigan 63 - Northwestern 56|
Notes: There are 326 schools competing in D-1 basketball. A total of 105 (including the NCAA tournament play-in game) qualify for post-season play. There are just 6 schools still standing, 2 in the Big East, and Rutgers among those (Connecticut being the other).
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