Sure it’s not as prestigious as the Big Dance, but one ACC team has already punched it’s ticket to a “final four” even if it isn’t the Final Four. Maryland narrowly defeated Alabama to claim the first berth in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden last night. Tonight Virginia will square off against Iowa for the privilege of challenging the Terps for a spot in the NIT Final. Of course, for Virginia to get there, the Cavaliers must defeat Iowa, a potentially very challenging task.
By Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Iowa is the best team in the country that wasn’t invited to the NCAA Tournament, with Virginia a close second. The two teams are quite similar: both feature stout defenses and unbalanced offenses that primarily feature two stars. While the Wahoos thrive on the sweet shooting of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, the Hawkeyes get most of their offensive mileage out of the uncanny abilities of Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White to get to the free throw line. Together, the pair has combined for 320 made free throws this season. White, in particular, has a free throw rate of 86.6%, averaging nearly seven free throw attempts per game in less than 30 MPG. In 40 minutes, that projects to drawing 6.6 fouls per game. This doesn’t seem like a big deal for a team like Virginia, which is generally very good at avoiding fouls, but it could be a problem in terms of its front line depth. Freshmen Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte have been excellent complementary pieces for the Cavaliers, but both still foul too much. Averaging 4.1 and 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes, respectively, the two seem likely candidates for disqualification against the savvy play of White and Marble.
Still, the Cavaliers have two things that the Hawkeyes don’t: notably, home court advantage and Harris. Harris has had only a mild showing in the NIT so far, which, unfortunately for Iowa, may portend a big game due for the versatile guard. Iowa is likely the better team and the Hawkeyes probably expect to dominate the boards against Virginia, but between the offensive wizardry of Harris and the significant edge of playing in Charlottesville, Virginia has a very good chance to get to the NIT semifinals.
Then, if the Cavaliers can get to Madison Square Garden, they can look forward to a tilt with the same Terrapins whom they swept in conference play. A strong showing in the NIT doesn’t do much for conference pride, but it sure does a lot more than losing early in the NIT.