NIT Quarterfinal Preview: How Three O26 Schools Can Reach Madison Square Garden

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 25th, 2014

With Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Belmont all playing in the NIT Quarterfinals tonight and tomorrow, let’s examine what it will take for each O26 hopeful to reach the Big Apple next week.

Southern Miss

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

  • Opponent: Minnesota
  • TV: 9:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday (Minneapolis, MN)
  • How they got here:  The Golden Eagles hosted Toledo in the First Round, handling the Rockets 66-59, before knocking off Missouri on the road by eight. In the two victories, they outrebounded their opponents by nine boards on the offensive glass.
  • Why they win: Southern Miss did not win 29 games this season by mistake. This team is deep, physical, experienced and should give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. The Golden Eagles force opposing offenses into a ton of mishaps – they boast the ninth best turnover rate in the country – by trapping and extending their zone pressure in the half-court to give ball-handlers all kinds of trouble. The Gophers are wholly average when it comes to taking care of the rock, ranking 151st in the country in offensive turnover rate. They might struggle against Donnie Tyndall’s unique, aggressive zone look. Likewise, Southern Miss is an excellent offensive rebounding club (despite its undersized frontcourt) that should be able to garner second chance offensive opportunities against their good-but-not-great defensive rebounding foe. Standing just 6’5”, athletic guard-forward Michael Craig is excellent on the boards.
  • Why they lose: For as many turnovers as they force, Tyndall’s club is just as bad when it comes to coughing up the ball. It was near the bottom of Conference USA in turnover percentage this year, which could spell trouble against the Gophers: Like his father, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino applies pressure and gets after teams defensively. Four of Southern Miss’ six losses this season were to opponents ranked in the top-50 in defensive turnover rate, including Louisville, which smacked the Golden Eagles by 31 back in November. Additionally, this is a true road game – never easy – against a squad that has proven capable of getting hot from behind the arc (shooting 11-of-19 from deep vs. Iowa in February). That very well might happen against USM’s zone look.
  • Why you should watch: This game has some serious intrigue. Aside from the game itself – which should be a tight one – former Golden Gopher Chip Armelin is now a Golden Eagle after transferring to Southern Miss following the 2012 season. Meanwhile, Minnesota point guard Deandre Mathieu began his career playing for Tyndall at Morehead State, before transferring to Hattiesburg after the head coach left.

Belmont

More hot shooting can lead Belmont past Clemson tonight. (Belmont Athletics)

More hot shooting can lead Belmont past Clemson tonight. (Belmont Athletics)

  • Opponent: Clemson
  • TV: 7:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday (Clemson, SC)
  • How they got here: The Bruins hit 18 combined threes and held back-to-back opponents to under one point per possession in wins over Green Bay and Robert Morris.
  • Why they win: Clemson’s defense is excellent, but that might not matter if Belmont catches fire. The Bruins are the best two-point shooting and 20th-best three-point shooting team in the country, capable of burying opponents when they get hot. In their win over North Carolina – a long and athletic defense – back in November, the team hit 15 triples. Against Indiana State that same month, Belmont shot 68 percent from inside the arc and scored 1.22 points per possession. When they played Southeast Missouri State in January, Rick Byrd’s guys knocked down 17 shots from distance and put up 107 points. If they do similar things against Clemson, they can win. And while the Tigers lock down teams defensively, they don’t exactly force many turnovers – which has been the Bruins’ glaring Achilles Heel in each of their losses this season.
  • Why they lose: Clemson is awesome at taking away the three-point line, limiting both the volume and quality of shots opponents take from behind the arc. At 27.9 percent, the Tigers lead the country in three-point defense. Forward K.J. McDaniels is the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and will probably blanket Belmont leader scorer J.J. Mann for much of the night. The Bruins won’t be able to make shots if they can’t take shots, or at least take good ones, so sharp execution will be imperative for Byrd’s club. The Ohio Valley champs will also be up against an underrated environment at Littlejohn Coliseum, which has always been a very difficult place for opponents to win.
  • Why you should watch: Can Belmont – one of several mid-majors that dominated their conferences this regular season but fell short of an automatic bid – push through and advance to the NIT Final Four? It would be a really nice feather in the cap for a program that’s been among the winningest in America over the past several years. The Bruins have been a popular upset pick in recent NCAA Tournaments, and a win tonight would help further validate that national respect.

Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech gave Georgia fits on Saturday. (David C Bristow)

Louisiana Tech gave Georgia fits on Saturday. (David C Bristow)

  • Opponent: Florida State
  • TV: 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Wednesday (Tallahassee, FL)
  • How they got here: Louisiana Tech edged Iona by one point in thrilling fashion, before using a huge early lead at Georgia on Saturday to upend the Bulldogs.
  • Why they win: Louisiana Tech is a very stingy defensive club that forces turnovers in bunches, which means Florida State might be in a world of hurt tomorrow night: the Seminoles’ offensive turnover rate was dead last in the ACC this season. If the Bulldogs are able to wreak havoc with their relentless full-court and half-court pressure, shooting guard Alex Hamilton and company will be able to score easy buckets in transition and render Florida State’s interior height and length moot. The key might be attacking early and often in Tallahassee, just like they did over the weekend in Athens. Mistakes tend to compound themselves against Louisiana Tech’s aggressive style.
  • Why they lose: The last time the Bulldogs faced a frontcourt as massive Florida State’s – against UTEP in January – they lost by 10 points. In their Conference USA championship loss to Tulsa, a team with a comparably tough interior defense, they really struggled to score in the paint and placed too much pressure on their so-so outside shooters. If the Seminoles’ enormous, long-armed defenders are able to give Michael White’s guys similar issues tomorrow, that might be all she wrote for Louisiana Tech. Oh, and if Florida State shoots like it did against Georgetown in the second round – 68 percent from two; 11-of-16 from three; and 30-of-38 from the line – that might also cause problems.
  • Why you should watch: Louisiana Tech is ranked 35th overall in KenPom and might have won an NCAA Tournament game if it hadn’t stumbled in the CUSA final. This team has plenty of athletes and loves to play high-octane, up-tempo basketball on both ends of the court. Likewise, Florida State has one of the longest, most physically imposing rosters in the entire country, including 7’3’’ center Boris Bojanovksy and a few other guys with equally-large wingspans. It should be a fun match-up.
Tommy Lemoine (76 Posts)


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