SMU (27-9, #1-seed) takes on Minnesota (24-13, #1-seed) in the NIT Championship Game. With a win, SMU would tie the school's record for wins in a season.
WHEN: Thursday, April 3, at 6 p.m. CT
WHERE: New York, NY (Madison Square Garden)
RADIO/TV: ESPN, SMU - KAAM 770 AM
SERIES: SMU Leads (6-3)
PONY TRENDS: In October, who would have guessed that SMU's last game of the season would be at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Championship Final?
The Mustangs' toughness and resilience has carried them to four straight come-from-behind victories and only the Golden Gophers stand in between them and their goal.
SMU was devastated on March 17th when they found out they would not be competing for an NCAA Championship but they have made the most out of the hand they were dealt.
Larry Brown's team has benefitted greatly from playing fundamental, old school basketball; passing until the best shot becomes available, great defense, post play and rebounding.
The "X Factor" for SMU this postseason has been the ability of their bench and role players to play meaningful minutes. Forward Markus Kennedy's 21 points and 9 rebounds in just 24 minutes is a testimony to how Larry Brown is utilizing all the talent on his team efficiently.
With even more fans expected to fly out to New York to cheer on the Mustangs in what could be their first NIT championship ever, SMU could bring a large piece of Moody Magic, to the most magical venue of all.
OPPONENT STRENGTHS: Along with SMU, Minnesota is considered one of the best teams left out of the tournament this year as signified by their number one seed. Minnesota beat Iowa and Ohio State, Florida State twice, and Final Four team Wisconsin.
Coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville Hall-of-fame Coach Rick Pitino, this year's Golden Gophers have already set the school record for most wins in a season at 24 and look to add one more to their total.
The Gophers are led by a set of very good guards; Andre and Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu. All averaging over 12 points a game, these guards can score in multiple ways and they all shoot over 34 percent from behind the arc.
It is quite easy for Mathieu to draw comparisons to SMU guard Nic Moore since they are both short, extremely quick and can shoot but Mathieu may be a little faster. He slashes with excellent acceleration, can make the sweet pass and can finish.
The two Hollins' are all-around great scorers inside and out. Their ability to shoot makes defenders respect them but their craftiness inside of the box and in transition is remarkable. Andre Hollins makes the tough off balanced shots, the spot up threes, and the layup with contact. Austin Hollins can score in a variety of ways being 6-foot-4, long and lanky but if he gets from three point land he is a momentum killer.
On the blocks, Minnesota gets most of their contribution from 6-foot-10, 250 lb. forward Maurice Walker who averages eight points and 4.4 rebounds, as well as 6-foot-11, 240 lb. center Elliot Eliason who averages five points a game and leads the team in rebounds with 6.7 per matchup.
Minnesota is well-coached, they hustle to the whistle, and feed off of steals, turnovers and transition points.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Mathieu vs. Nic Moore – Nic Moore will have to guard a quick and dangerous player in DeAndre Mathieu. The Minnesota guard has only attempted 43 threes this season but is shooting 51 percent from behind the arc. Much like Moore, Mathieu's ability to penetrate and dish keeps the offense running and the ball moving. Mathieu is also second on the team with 58 steals this season. With both players having essential roles on offense, and being comparable in skillset, this should be a fun matchup to watch.
KEYS TO THE GAME: SMU has to be patient with their possessions. They have done a great job sharing the basketball during the tournament and that has to continue. Defensively, SMU needs to keep Minnesota's guards out on the perimeter as much as possible. They cannot allow them to consistently slash into the lane. The guard play of the Gophers will kill the Mustangs if they are given the opportunity to take high percentage mid-range jumpers and layups and that is exactly what they will try to do. Minnesota has to push the tempo, play fast, force turnovers and drive right into the heart of the Mustangs interior. They are a good team out in transition and must utilize that facet of the game. I would not be surprised if this game was decided by shooting percentage from long range. If one team can get hot from behind the arc that may be the "X-Factor."