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PREVIEW: THE "NON-CHALKTASTIC" NIT FINAL FOUR
April 1, 2008

SCS.com Now that the dust has settled from the first two weekends of playoff basketball, the two college basketball tournaments are down to their final four teams. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, where all four top seeds won their regions for the first time ever, the NIT bracket had much more madness in the quarterfinal round. Top seeds Syracuse, Arizona State, and Virginia Tech all went down in order on their home courts last week (and Ohio State was in trouble for over half the game against Dayton), so there will be no repeat of last season when the NIT had the "chalktastic" four 1-seeds in NYC. No more NCAA basketball until Saturday, so there's no reason to not tune in and see who wins the big #66 trophy on Tuesday and Thursday.

One final note before we jump into the NYC Final Four: the CBI has reduced its field from 16 down to 2. Bradley defended the home court against Cincinnati and Ohio University before winning their semifinal on the road at Virginia. Tulsa has had home court advantage throughout, defeating Miami, Utah, and Houston. The interesting thing about the CBI is their best-of-three finals, so the Braves and the Golden Hurricane played Monday night in Tulsa, with the Hurricane taking the win. They'll now play Wednesday in Bradley, and Friday if necessary back in Tulsa. The way Bradley is playing, I wouldn't bet against them winning this championship.

NIT Tournament Final Four

HOW THEY GOT HERE

(1) Ohio State – defeated (8) UNC Asheville 84-66, (4) California 73-56, (3) Dayton 74-63. The Buckeyes were the only top seed to make it to Madison Square Garden, so they are the only team present who has not won a road game to get here. Each of these games were close in the first half, but the Buckeyes found their shooting touch in each game in a big run around the halftime break. The only real news from this bracket was how well the Buckeyes defended 7'8" UNCA center Kenny George in the first round. The Buckeyes' strong zone defense has confounded their first three opponents.

(2) Mississippi – defeated (7) UCSB 83-68, (3) Nebraska 85-75, (1) Virginia Tech 81-72. The Rebels fell behind early against UCSB, but rallied with a massive rebounding edge over the smaller Gauchos. The game against the Cornhuskers was close throughout and Mississippi wore down Nebraska in overtime, outscoring them 15-5 in the extra period. Virginia Tech had blasted their first two opponents, but apparently ran out of gas against the Rebels, getting out-rebounded 46-23. Mississippi is playing their best basketball of the season on the offensive side.

(2) Florida – defeated (7) San Diego State 73-49, (3) Creighton 82-54, (1) Arizona State 70-57. Apparently the "baby Gators" heard the message from Billy Donovan loud and clear when he kicked them out of their normal practice gear and gymnasium after failing to make the NCAA Tournament. After ending the season on a four-game losing streak, the Gators absolutely blew the doors off the Aztecs and Bluejays, and Nick Calathes had a triple-double in the second round game. Then the Gators traveled across the country to cool off the red-hot Sun Devils, jumping out to a big lead early and then putting the game away after Arizona State had come back in the second half. These Gators look hungry for their third straight March tournament title.

(2) Massachusetts – defeated (7) Stephen F. Austin 80-60, (6) Akron 68-63, (1) Syracuse 81-77. The Minutemen had the easiest road to New York of all the 2-seeds, and they delivered in the crunch time of two games. The Lumberjacks never threatened UMass, as Dante Milligan scored 24 and added 7 blocks in the first round. In the second round, the Zips outplayed UMass for 32 minutes and led 58-46 before the Minutemen found their offensive touch in time to end the game on a 22-5 run. The Syracuse road game was a rematch of a 107-100 UMass win in the Carrier Dome earlier this season, but the result was no different in this battle. Syracuse led by 22 with 14 minutes left, but the Orange made the same mistake Akron did and let UMass start going crazy from behind the arc to come back from the dead and make the NYC Final Four. Call them the comeback kids, you can never count UMass out in this NIT tournament.

GETTING IT DONE

(1) Ohio State – The Buckeyes have clearly enjoyed home-court advantage and not having to grind out offensive possessions against Big Ten foes so far. OSU shot over 50% from the field in each victory so far, holding the opposition right on 40% each game. The key to success has been the seniors Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter, and in certain places, Matt Terwillinger. Each of these seniors has finally stepped up in the post-Oden, Conley, Cook era and pushed this team to a solid finish. The Buckeyes also made the NIT Pre-season final four, so the bright lights of Madison Square Garden will not affect these players. On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes may have outgrown the zone defense a few games ago, but they are so good at the 2-3 zone that Thad Matta has kept it on to disrupt teams used to man-to-man. This is the key to many Buckeye victories down the stretch.

(2) Mississippi – The Rebels have done a fantastic job of spreading the scoring opportunities around all season, and the NIT has been no different. On the inside, center Dwayne Curtis is a force to deal with, while the outside features a strong shooting trio of Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice, and David Huertas. Mississippi is a deep team, getting quality minutes from the first set of reserves. The win over Nebraska shows that the Rebels can wear down and outlast most teams in a grind-it-out type of game. The strongest recent trend has been on the rebounding edge, where Mississippi has dominated their opponents. When the Rebels can limit the opponent to one shot per possession, the chances of giving up a devastating run is limited significantly.

(2) Florida – The Gators are the deepest team left in this tournament, with nine regular players getting double-digit minutes every night. Whatever motivational tactics Billy Donovan has done recently must have worked, and one cannot discount 15 straight March tournament victories. The Gators have scored over 77 points per game this season, and in the tournament have shot well over 50%. The Gators also do not turn the ball over much, and it seems like their opposition always is forced into more turnovers by the end of the game, creating more opportunities for the Gators. These Florida players are starting to jell and play with confidence, which should help them play like champions.

(2) Massachusetts – The Minutemen know how to generate offense, running a fast-paced screen and roll game which produces 82 points per game. The Minutemen challenge defenses with a small lineup, featuring three guards and two forwards. Gary Forbes and Ricky Harris are both usually around 20+ points per game, and each can light it up from beyond the arc. The Minutemen have also shown real mental toughness in their two double-digit comeback victories, especially the 22 point deficit against Syracuse. Look for the Minutemen to try and push the pace to give their hot shooting guards the chance to put up a lot of points.

NEEDS SOME WORK

(1) Ohio State – One aspect that kept the Buckeyes out of the NCAA was their road record (4-8), and we have not seen OSU on the road yet this tournament. Will the Buckeyes be able to step it up on a neutral-court? At least from a superstitious perspective, OSU will get to wear their home gray jerseys in each game in New York. Back to the court, two weaknesses of the Buckeyes are rebounding and three-point defense, both casualties related to their zone defense. If a team is good at grabbing boards (Mississippi) or hitting threes (Massachusetts), that could create some serious problems.

(2) Mississippi – Just like the Buckeyes, the road record for the Rebels is troubling. The Rebels had lost 7 road games in a row before beating Georgia on senior day and Virginia Tech last week. Mississippi is also not playing their best basketball right now, unlike the other three teams in New York. Despite the strong rebounding presence, the Rebels have trouble keeping teams below 70-75 points and end up winning only when they shoot well. There's almost no way Mississippi can survive a defensive slugfest, which is what Ohio State will want to have on Tuesday night. Finally, free throw shooting can be a problem for this squad.

(2) Florida – Of course Florida has been the most impressive team in the NIT so far, but these Gators have shown a tendency to lose focus and be inconsistent all season. They cannot afford a lapse at the end of the game against a team like Massachusetts, which can come back from any reasonable deficit if given an opening. As much as Florida has a deep bench, opposing teams only need to key off on Nick Calathes and Marreese Speights to really force the Gators into trouble. It is very unclear if the Gators can have a role player step up and have that 20-point night they need when those two are defended well or have an off-night. In addition, the Gators only won one game all year in which they scored less than 70…which means the Gators will struggle in a defensive slugfest.

(2) Massachusetts – The Minutemen suffer from the same problem as their semifinal opponent, which is trouble in games where they score less than 75 points. UMass wants to run up and down the court, and a good defensive effort can make the Minutemen sweat. The Minutemen really only go 6 players deep, as nobody else sees much more than 10 minutes of play time per game. This lack of depth can hurt against a team with many solid players off the bench. For all the points UMass puts up, the bench does not produce with only about 10 of those 82 per game. In the NIT tournament, the Minutemen have gone through serious cold shooting streaks and cannot hope to overcome these lapses against better competition in New York. Free throws could also be a problem.

MATCHING UP

(#1) Ohio State vs. (#2) Mississippi

Head to Head: Mississippi C Dwayne Curtis vs. Ohio State C Kosta Koufos – the big men inside should have a big day in this one. Each team features three guards typically and each team has a strong point guard, but a lot of games have been determined by whether these big guys are having a good or bad night. Curtis is a more natural post player, but the real question is can he defend Koufos when Koufos posts up closer to the three point line? Expect this to be the key.

For the Buckeyes to win… they need to keep Jamar Butler shooting and shooting well from behind the three point arc. When Butler runs the offense and has his shooting touch, the Buckeyes are nearly impossible to beat. The Buckeyes on the inside will need to battle more than usual for rebounds against these Rebels, and this could be a big game for Othello Hunter. Another nice aspect of the Buckeye defense is the press, and I expect a lot of that against the Rebels.

For the Rebels to win… they need to drive the hoop a lot and force Ohio State to go to more inexperienced and smaller inside guys. If a lot of fouls are called on both teams, Mississippi is favored thanks to similar numbers from the free-throw line and a deeper bench. The dribble-drive and good movement without the ball is key to operating effectively against zone defense, and Mississippi should have been practicing their three point shots all weekend. Hit a few threes and out-rebound the Buckeyes, and the Rebels can go to the final.

The deciding factor: Jamar Butler. If Butler gets hot at any point in the game, he can put away an opponent as he did against Dayton and California. As long as Mississippi keeps solid defense on Butler, the Buckeyes will need to lean on other players who are not consistent scorers to keep up. Butler can also set the pace of this game, as Mississippi will want to keep the scoring high. I expect Butler to stay hot from the field and extend his career for one more game yet again as the upperclassmen of OSU show off their tournament experience.

(#2) Florida vs. (#2) Massachusetts

Head to Head: Florida C Marreese Speights vs. UMass F Dante Milligan – Again I'm choosing the inside man battle to be a key in this other semifinal. Speights is clearly more talented and has better numbers, but Milligan has shut down some fairly good centers and forwards in Atlantic 10 play this season. Milligan also shoots 65% from the field, so the few shots he puts up are usually good. If Milligan has a great game against the likes of Speights, UMass will certainly be close enough late to win.

For the Gators to win… they need to let Nick Calathes take the game over like he did against Creighton. Calathes has the potential to pull a triple-double again in this game as both teams like to score a lot of points. Billy Donovan has had an extraordinary amount of time to break down UMass and should have his young Gators prepared for whatever curveballs UMass will bring to New York. Florida can also rely on playing more run and gun due to much more depth on the bench to bring in.

For the Minutemen to win… the Minutemen need to avoid foul trouble at any cost. Outside of F Tony Gaffney, UMass has nobody of note to bring in the game is foul trouble occurs. The Minutemen also like to play a fast-paced game, but they might be better served playing better defense and hoping to hold Florida under 80. Gary Forbes and Ricky Harris each need 20+ points in this shootout, and UMass needs to stay confident no matter what happens in the early going. The Minutemen have an uphill battle, but the tough Atlantic 10 will be good preparation for a team like Florida.

The deciding factor: The depth of Florida. Expect this game to be an absolute shootout, lighting up the scoreboard continuously all game. Florida appears to have dealt with their inconsistency problem while UMass is going through significant stretches without scoring. Teams like Akron and Syracuse will let you back into games, but Florida probably does not. Barring a poor Florida performance, expect the Gators to eventually overwhelm Massachusetts.

LOOKING AHEAD

It seems the most likely final is a familiar one in college sports: Florida vs. Ohio State. This time Ohio State would legitimately be the favorite on the basketball court, but the Gators could not be counted out. It would be beyond fantastic to see Nick Calathes and Jamar Butler exchange shots for 40 minutes, and this battle would be a chance for OSU to regain a little national pride damaged by the SEC in football and basketball. Each of these teams will not lose much next season and should be back in the NCAA mix, so expect a rebound in 2008-09 no matter what happens. As for a prediction, I'll take the baby Gators over the Buckeyes.

In the other three possibilities, I think OSU could knock off UMass, and if Mississippi gets by OSU, they can probably beat either Florida or UMass. On one final note, please NIT committee: spell the champions' team shirts correctly this year. No repeat "West Virgina" shirts, as funny as they were. It's been a great season, and I look forward to seeing all you readers back for my regular columns starting this summer for college football previews.

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