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March 27, 2012

Scouting the NIT’s Final Four

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:25 am

The NIT’s “Final Four” is here, as tonight’s semifinals of the longest-running postseason tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden. At 4 p.m., UMass faces Stanford, followed by Washington and Minnesota at approximately 6:30 p.m. Both games air on ESPN2. Here’s a look at what to expect

(1) Washington Huskies
Record: 24-10 (14-4 Pac-12)
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 109.0 (55)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 95.8 (71)
Pace: 69.9 (30)
How They Got Here: 82-72 vs. Texas Arlington, 76-55 vs. Northwestern, 80-76 vs. Oregon

From a subjective standpoint, the Huskies are the Kentucky of the NIT. According to selection committee chair C.M. Newton, Washington was the No. 1 overall seed. Like Newton’s former college, the Huskies are also the lone No. 1 seed to advance to the Final Four. Washington pulled away from Texas Arlington late, delivered its most impressive performance of the season against Northwestern and then used home-court advantage to outlast a feisty Oregon squad.

The Huskies have the most NBA talent in the remaining group. In wing Terrence Ross and guard Tony Wroten, they boast two future first-round picks. Ross has been terrific in the NIT, averaging 26.3 points on 66.3 percent True Shooting. Wroten turned passer in the first two games, handing out 15 assists and attempting just 10 shots, before getting to the free throw line 14 times and scoring 22 points against Oregon. Washington has also gotten solid contributions from point guard Abdul Gaddy, a non-factor at times much of the season.

As good as the Huskies’ top-end talent is, they reliably go just six players deep. Beyond that, Lorenzo Romar has been forced to turn to inconsistent freshmen big men Desmond Simmons, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Shawn Kemp, Jr. So foul trouble for shot-blocking center Aziz N’Diaye could spell doom for Washington, though the Huskies have been able to overcome it twice so far in the NIT.

(6) Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 22-14 (6-12 Big Ten)
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 110.0 (40)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 94.6 (53)
Pace: 64.3 (261)
How They Got Here: 70-61 at LaSalle, 78-60 at Miami (Fl), 78-72 at Middle Tennessee

Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes took a major hit when star forward Trevor Mbakwe suffered a torn ACL during the season’s seventh game. Tubby Smith‘s charges still negotiated a non-threatening non-conference slate at 12-1, the only loss at Dayton, before sinking to 6-12 in conference play. In practice, Minnesota was more competitive against Big Ten foes than the record would indicate. The Golden Gophers were outscored by 0.04 points per possession, which would ordinarily translate into seven or eight wins out of 18.

Improbably, Minnesota came together over the course of the NIT without its other senior starting post, Ralph Sampson III. The 6-11 shot blocker has not played since the regular-season finale due to a knee injury. Yet the Golden Gophers won three road games against teams rated as essentially their equal entering the tournament, including an impressive 18-point blowout at Miami.

The key for Minnesota has been the play of athletic forward Rodney Williams, who shifted from the wing to the post after Mbakwe’s injury. Williams has always been an impact defender and high-percentage shooter, but using an above-average share of the Golden Gophers’ plays is a new addition to his repertoire. Williams has averaged 22.0 points in the NIT. Minnesota has also gotten 17.0 points per game from freshman point guard Andre Hollins, who has shot nearly the same percentage from three (39.1 percent) as inside the arc (39.8 percent) this season. Better to play Hollins–no relation to backcourt-mate Austin Hollins, who is the son of Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins–for the drive.

Sampson’s status for Tuesday’s game is uncertain. If he doesn’t go, the Golden Gophers have little size inside behind redshirt freshman Elliott Eliason. The best matchups for Washington might come from going small and putting Ross on Williams for extended stretches.

(3) Stanford Cardinal
Record: 24-11 (10-8 Pac-12)
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 106.6 (81)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 92.4 (26)
Pace: 67.7 (95)
How They Got Here: 76-65 vs. Cleveland State, 92-88 vs. Illinois State (OT), 84-56 vs. Nevada

As the No. 3 seed in its region, Stanford took advantage of upsets to stay at home on The Farm throughout the first three rounds of the NIT. The Cardinal rallied from a second-half deficit to beat Illinois State in the extra session, then demolished Nevada to reach the semifinals. Stanford is now an impressive 13-2 against non-league competition, the lone losses coming against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden (where both the Cardinal and the Huskies, oddly, played early in the season) and home against Butler. Had Stanford been nearly as effective against a down Pac-12, the Cardinal would have reached the NCAA tournament.

Over the course of the season, freshman Chasson Randle has emerged as Stanford’s go-to player. Randle is a versatile scorer who’s made 81 three-pointers at a 43.8 percent clip and can get to the paint off the dribble, though he too has struggled as a finisher, making 43.4 percent of his twos. Randle is at his best when he’s getting to the free throw line. He drew 12 foul shots in a 30-point effort against Arizona State. Inside, senior Josh Owens commands a double-team in the post. Owens has nice touch on hook shots and has shot 57.6 percent on two-point attempts. Sophomore point guard Aaron Bright is the last stalwart for the Cardinal, contributing 43.3 percent shooting from downtown.

Beyond them, Johnny Dawkins mixes and matches from a large pool of role players. 6-9 sophomore forward Dwight Powell is the most talented of the group, but the one-time NBA prospect has yet to translate that into consistent production. He did have 18 points and nine boards against Illinois State. Josh Huestis has emerged as a perimeter stopper for Stanford, but he is not a threat from the perimeter.

(5) Massachusetts Minutemen
Record: 25-11 (9-7 Atlantic 10)
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 106.1 (88)
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 95.5 (88)
Pace: 73.7 (3)
How They Got Here: 101-96 at Mississippi State (2OT), 77-67 at Seton Hall, 72-70 at Stanford

Like Minnesota, UMass took the hard route to Madison Square Garden, winning three times on the road. Most impressive was a 72-70 win at Drexel, which had been the favorite to win the NIT on paper. The Minutemen have been hot since the end of the regular season, going 5-1 with their lone loss by four to St. Bonaventure in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Previously, UMass knocked off Temple, one of five wins this season over NCAA tournament-bound opponents. (By contrast, Washington had none.)

The Minutemen rely heavily on sophomore point guard Chaz Williams, a 5-9 transfer from Hofstra who has played 127 of a possible 130 minutes in the NIT. Not unlike Andre Hollins, Williams is more accurate shooting threes (42.5 percent) than twos (40.4 percent). His size works against him at the rim, so defenses should make him finish in traffic rather than over-helping and allowing him to set up teammates. Williams is a willing passer who adds 6.3 assists per game to his 16.9 points. Look for Stanford to use 6-4 defensive specialist Jarrett Mann to put size on Williams

Beyond Williams, UMass is balanced, with three starters using between 19 and 20 percent of the team’s possessions. During the NIT, six Minutemen are averaging at least 9.0 points per game. Forward Terrell Vinson has had a solid postseason, scoring 20 points against St. Bonaventure and 18 against Drexel. Stanford can back off Vinson, a 30.5 percent three-point shooter.

The Cardinal will also want to slow down UMass, which played at the nation’s third-fastest tempo, by taking care of the basketball. In December, Stanford used offensive execution to blow out Seattle University, which led the NCAA in adjusted pace and also likes to pressure full court.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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