Richard Pitino will coach in his first non-conference tournament championship game of his career on Thursday night. The coach on the other bench is no stranger to championship basketball. Richard Pitino was five years old when Brown won the national title in 1988, 22 when Brown won his first NBA title with the Pistons. At age 31, Pitino hopes to give the 73 year old Brown his first N.I.T. championship loss.
The coaches will get all the attention on Thursday night, since ESPN is incapable of paying attention to actual basketball. That is a bit of a shame, because there could be a pretty entertaining game if the Gophers can recover from Tuesday’s over-time disasterpiece. SMU, a program on the upswing since Brown took over, is in the midst of their best season in decades. They have a 28-7 record, with two wins over Final Four bound UConn and a win each against NCAA qualifiers Cincinnati and Memphis. They have actually beaten some good teams. However, in what is now a recurring theme among Minnesota’s N.I.T. opponents, they played a horrible non-conference schedule and besides UConn have done nothing away from home. The selection committee sent a message about non-conference scheduling, and did so in the form of SMU’s snub.
On paper or computer screens, where games aren’t played, the Mustangs are a very good team. Their offense ranks 67th in the country, which understates their ability. They are the 38th best shooting team, 52nd best offensive rebounding team, and they are 84th in getting to the free-throw line. Those kinds of numbers would usually lead to a top 20 offense, but the Mustangs rank 285th in taking care of the ball, committing turnovers on a fifth of their possessions. For some perspective, in all the Gophers’ seasons of ball handling ineptitude under Tubby Smith, only the 2011-2012 team ranked worse in turnover percentage.
SMU’s defense is great, without any caveats. They are 17th in the country allowing .947 points per possession (compared to Minnesota which allows 1.007). Their two-point defense is 9th nationally, and their three-point defense is 63rd the country. Their opponents, perhaps because they realize their efforts will be futile, shoot the 25th fewest two point shots. They force a ton of turnovers and block a ton of shots too. They really are good. If it is any consolation, Florida State also has a very good interior defense, blocks a lot of shots, forces their fair share of turnovers, and has two losses to the Gophers.
Two match-ups, between very similar players, will likely decide who wins the N.I.T. championship. Markus Kennedy, a sophomore transfer from Villanova, is playing significant minutes for the first time in his career. He dropped around 50 pounds, and is now a relative svelte 6’9” 245 pounds. Kennedy is a very good rebounder and defender, and ranked 50th in the country in steal percentage, which is unheard of for a player his size. He’ll be matched up with Mo Walker, whose career has had the same trajectory. On the outside, Nic Moore is a 5’9” point guard who transferred to SMU from Illinois State, and is now thriving under a bright spot light. Sounds like Deandre Mathieu, doesn’t it? Moore is a better shooter than Mathieu, but like Minnesota’s point guard, can get himself in a bit of trouble when he tries to do too much or forgets he is only 5’9″.
Regardless of the outcome on Thursday night, the season will come to an end. Let’s hope it ends with a win, officially, for the first time since 1993.