NIT Championship Betting Preview: Utah vs. Penn State
© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Did you know that the NCAA Tournament used to start after the NIT championship to avoid competition? That’s how prestigious and popular the NIT was in the 1940s and 50s. In fact, teams could actually compete in both tournaments.
A great piece of college basketball trivia is that in 1950 City College of New York (CCNY) became the only team to win the NIT and national championship in the same year. (Speaking of CCNY, that team was involved in a massive point shaving scandal. A 1998 documentary called “City Dump” also covers this topic.) Before the NCAA mandated that conference champions compete in the NCAA Tournament, legendary coach Al McGuire actually turned down a bid to the NCAA Tournament in favor of the NIT in 1970. He did so because he didn’t like Marquette’s region.
Enough of the history. Before the Final Four, we have an opportunity to bet on the NIT championship game between Utah and Penn State. We will first take a look at the profile of each team, while touching on the matchup on each end of the floor. We will then close out with a prediction for tonight’s outcome. Let’s get to it!
Utah vs. Penn State -4 | O/U: 134.5
7 p.m. ET on ESPN
When Penn State Has The Ball
Penn State has been buoyed by the strength of its defense all year, but it has played some of its most efficient offense of the season in its run to the NIT title game. The Nittany Lions have scored 1.15 points per possession (ppp) in this tournament. That efficiency can be attributed in large part to Shep Garner, who simply isn’t missing. (Garner is 17-of-33 from deep in the NIT.) The senior off guard is certainly closing his PSU career in style. Defenses routinely trap 6-foot-5 point guard Tony Carr on ball screens, but Garner has made them pay all tournament.
While Carr and Garner have carried the PSU backcourt, sophomore Lamar Stevens has come into his own offensively in the frontcourt. The Lions have been extremely efficient in 1-4 pick-and-roll between Carr and the 6-foot-8 power forward Stevens, who has been an excellent decision-maker when defenses attempt to play the roll more than the screen on Carr. Stevens tallied an impressive six assists in the semifinals against Mississippi State.
Penn State’s zone offense will be tested tonight. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak changed the fortunes of the Utes’ season by switching to a base zone defense. PSU has had issues against defenses that can effectively wall off the paint, scoring in just the 57th percentile nationally in zone offense, per Synergy. That said, Carr and Josh Reaves have a massive height advantage over the top of Utah’s zone against 5-foot-8 Justin Bibbins and 6-foot-2 Sedrick Barefield. However, I’ve noted this “disadvantage” with basically every Utah opponent in this tournament, yet its zone hasn’t allowed over 1 ppp in four NIT games. Utah does have some issues rebounding defensively out of said zone. And while Penn State’s John Harrar is no Mike Watkins, he has been a semi-force on the offensive glass in the injured big man’s stead.
When Utah Has The Ball
The Utes haven’t been as efficient offensively as PSU in this tourney. However, Krystkowiak has about a million set pieces in his playbook, making Utah a very tricky opponent to prepare for on short rest. The Utes have been atypically reliant on the 3 for a Krystkowiak team, but they move the ball extremely well at every position except the 3. They work the ball beautifully and methodically off a series of ball screens and dribble weaves between Bibbins and Barefield. Plus, David Collette is an adept passer out of the post. Perhaps the biggest weapon is 6-foot-10 stretch 4 Tyler Rawson, who is lethal in pick-and-pop scenarios. He is also an outstanding big-to-big passer in Krystkowiak’s high-low sets. Utah had the 14th-highest assist rate in the country this season for a reason.
PSU should handle a methodical Utes offense that ranks 320th in average possession length. Utah forces teams to defend deep into the shot clock, hoping to find an exploitable mismatch with its numerous set plays and screens. The Lions, however, allow just .574 points per possession in “short shot clock” situations, per Synergy (94th percentile nationally). Between Carr, Garner and Reaves, PSU is an excellent ball-screen defense. Harrar has made massive strides in both his post and pick-and-roll defense while learning on the fly in the frontcourt, but Krystkowiak may focus on attacking his lack of experience with Collette inside and Rawson in space. I expect Pat Chambers to extend his defense when pit bull Jamari Wheeler is on the floor, attempting to disrupt Bibbins and Barefield before Utah can get into its litany of offensive plays that have proven effective this tourney.
NIT Championship Outlook
This game will will likely come down to half-court execution. Given PSU’s less-than-stellar zone offense, Utah will have the edge in that department. That said, PSU’s length and athleticism in the backcourt/wings have been the trump card in every NIT game thus far. I suspect that again will ultimately allow the Nittany Lions to prevail. However, given how well both defenses are playing, you have to look at the points in what should be a grinder.
THE PICK: Under 134.5 (also lean Utah +4)
Penn State guard Tony Carr pictured above; credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports