Betting Previews for Both NIT Semifinal Matchups on Tuesday at MSG
© Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
While we have all watched one of the crazier NCAA Tournaments in recent memory, the NIT has also featured plenty of surprises. The NIT semis will kick off tonight with three No. 4 seeds and a No. 2 seed, all of which won on the road to secure a spot in Madison Square Garden. Three of the four top seeds (Notre Dame, Baylor, USC) actually fell in the second round of the NIT. Even with all of the upsets, we have two very intriguing semifinal matchups tonight. Let’s take a closer look at both.
#4 Western Kentucky vs #2 Utah +1.5 | O/U: 139.5
7 p.m. ET on ESPN
An intriguing matchup that features two defenses that can take away a few strengths of the opposing offenses.
WKU’s offense really flourishes off penetration from a trio of guards in Darius Thompson, Lamonte Bearden, and Traveion Hollingsworth. The ability of all three to get into the paint and force defenses to collapse is at the heart of head coach Rick Stansbury’s offense,. The Hilltoppers attempt shots at the rim at the 50th highest rate nationally. However, Utah’s defense only allows the 35th lowest FG% at the rim, per hoop-math.com.
Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s switch from man to zone has improved the Utes dramatically, as they have lost just four times since Jan. 18. That zone should help tonight, as WKU plays much more efficiently against man. Utah’s ability to shut down two rim/interior reliant offenses in LSU and St. Mary’s also bodes well for the Utes’ defense under the bright lights of MSG. In fact, Utah hasn’t allowed any of its three NIT opponents to score over 1 point per possession. Its sagging man to man and multiple zone looks should keep WKU away from the rim and the line. (The Tops get to the charity stripe at a top 30 rate nationally.)
Western Kentucky meanwhile got to NYC on the strength of its offense, outscoring both USC and Oklahoma State in impressive fashion on the road. While WKU isn’t quite as stout defensively as Utah, it does have a length advantage in the backcourt against Utah’s Justin Bibbins and Sedrick Barefield. Utah runs both off a ton of high ball screens when the offense gets stagnant, which happens frequently. The length and quick hands of Thompson and Bearden could really disrupt that action.
In the frontcourt, Utah runs a lot of post action through 6’10 senior forward David Collette, who is currently batting a back injury that kept him out of the second half and OT against St. Mary’s. The Utes also run lot of pick and pop action through 6’10 forward Tyler Rawson. Both should exploit WKU’s suspect defense in the post and against screen and rolls.
The old adage is defense travels. Utah’s defense playing at high level with a scheme that has limited the Hilltoppers all year. As a result, I’ll side with the Utes tonight in the Garden.
THE PICK: Utah +1.5
#4 Mississippi State vs #4 Penn State -2.5 | O/U: 135
9 p.m. ET on ESPN
A great matchup of two teams with outstanding backcourt/wing athleticism, and should feature some interesting individual battles.
The book on Mississippi State all year was short and easy: pack the paint to force the Weatherspoon brothers (Nick and Quinndary) and Lamar Peters to make jump shots. All three guards shot sub 30% on the year from deep, where MSU shot just 31.7% overall (24th worst nationally). That said, MSU has looked like a different team on offense in the NIT, having shot 44% from downtown. Peters’ assists have increased, while his turnovers are way down (28 to 5 ratio in NIT play). Also, 6’6 guard Xavian Stapleton has looked like the floor stretcher he was supposed to be all season, which has opened up the court for the Weatherspoon brothers. Combine that with MSU’s typical solid half court ball pressure and man to man Ben Howland defense, and it should be no surprise that MSU is here at MSG.
MSU will face a similarly constructed Penn State team with outstanding length and athleticism on the perimeter. Head coach Pat Chambers’ squad has been decimated by injuries of late, but the return of guard Nazeer Bostick will help their depth. PSU’s offense revolves around point guard Tony Carr’s ability to break down defenses, draw contact, and shoot over the top of smaller guards with his 6’5 frame. However, he could get bottled up by the sticky defense of both Weatherspoon brothers. Both can keep Carr from backing them down in the post, a big part of his offensive advantage against most teams.
While the PSU offense revolves around Carr, forward Lamar Stevens has been outstanding in screen and roll this entire tournament. In the quarterfinals against Marquette, he put up 30 points on 14-22 shooting. Given the fact that MSU forwards Abdul Ado and Aric Holman have struggled defending in pick and roll, Stevens could have another strong game.
Defensively, Penn State isn’t the same team without forward Mike Watkins protecting the rim. However, the Lions have been excellent on that end this tournament. Forward John Harrar has been serviceable in Watkins’ stead, but the real strength of Chambers’ defense lies with Josh Reaves’ versatility on the perimeter. PSU can really disrupt opposing ball handlers before they can set up their offenses. This is especially true when Chambers extends pressure with freshman guard Jamari Wheeler, who changed the game against Marquette’s speedy ball handling duo. MSU’s Lamar Peters has been a different point guard of late, but he hasn’t faced the length of Reaves or the quick hands of Wheeler for an entire game.
With two evenly matched teams, rebounding can often be the x-factor. While MSU has struggled on the defensive glass all season, PSU’s edge on putbacks is mitigated by Watkins’ absence.
These are two teams built on the backs of their defenses. Add in MSU’s unsustainable recent shooting, and I think we see a back-and-forth, low scoring affair.
THE PICK: Under 135
Penn State guard Tony Carr pictured above; credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports