No, not that Final Four.
This one tips off on Tuesday night, as two teams from the underachieving Pac-12, a surging middle-of-the-Big-Ten program and one completely unexpected participant vie for the NIT title at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
This one won't get even a 10th of the fanfare that this weekend's national semifinals in New Orleans will receive, which is a no-brainer. But Tuesday's action could be pretty entertaining, with both games being shown on ESPN2
The NIT title game will take place on Thursday night, but before it's determined who will advance, here's a quick primer on Tuesday's semifinal matchups.
No. 5 Massachusetts (25-11) vs. No. 3 Stanford (24-11) — 7 p.m. ET
Well, certainly don't expect UMass to be intimidated by the stage at MSG, as the Minutemen won high-scoring, intense games at Mississippi State, Seton Hall and Drexel to get this far. The latest was last Tuesday's 72-70 triumph at Drexel, in which UMass came back from a 17-point second-half deficit. They're pushing the pace successfully behind 5-foot-9 sophomore guard Chaz Williams, who is one of the tournament's hottest individual performers. Through three games, he's averaging 22.7 points and 5.3 assists per outing, and is 8 of 15 from 3-point range. That sets up a great individual matchup against Stanford sophomore Aaron Bright. Bright, also undersized at 5-foot-11 — a listing that might be a tad generous — is 9 of 12 from deep in the NIT so far, including a career night against Illinois State in the second round, when he hit 6 of 7 3-point attempts and scored a career-high 29 points. The hot shooting has been contagious for Stanford, which wasn't a consistently efficient offensive ball club in the regular season, but is 89 of 172 (51.7 percent) from the floor and 24 of 47 (51.1 percent) from the outside so far in the NIT. Some of that, too, could also be chalked up to having played each of its NIT games at home. That won't be the case here, and UMass comes in looking like it's a bit more battle-tested. Stanford knows the building a bit, having played in the preseason NIT back in November, but the Minutemen should also have a decent advantage in the stands. Projected Winner: UMass.
No. 6 Minnesota (22-14) vs. No. 1 Washington (24-10) — 9 p.m. ET
Like UMass, Minnesota comes to New York having gone through a grinder of a three-game stretch on the road. And like Stanford, Washington has had the luxury of playing all three of its games in Seattle. And, like UMass-Stanford, this game should be uptempo and entertaining. Minnesota is riding the hot hand of high-flying junior wing Rodney Williams, who after scoring 20-plus points just twice this year heading into the NIT has scored 21, 21 and 24 in the tournament. He's also been a presence on the glass, making up for the absence of senior center Ralph Sampson III, who hasn't played since the Gophers' regular-season finale. On the other side, Washington clearly used the bitter taste left from being the first Pac-10/12 team to ever win the regular-season title and get left out of the NCAA tournament as motivation. The Huskies have a slight edge in terms of overall athleticism and length, but definitely have an advantage in the backcourt, as both freshman Tony Wroten and sophomore Terrence Ross are not only playing to win a title, but also to stand out some in the eyes of NBA scouts this postseason. Ross is the NIT's leading scorer at 26.3 points per game off of 51.9 percent shooting. Wroten broke out with 22 points in a semifinal victory over Pac-12 foe Oregon, but also has 17 assists and 16 rebounds so far in the tournament, contributing in multiple ways. Washington's one slight edge outside of matchups, like with Stanford, comes in the form of building familiarity, with early December losses to Marquette and Duke at MSG. Will it matter? It's hard to tell, but this one could be as fun to watch as either of the games played in New Orleans this weekend. Projected Winner: Washington.
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