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Thursday, March 29, 2012
W2W4: Stanford vs. Minnesota

By Kieran Darcy

Here are three things to watch for when Stanford (25-11, 10-8 Pac-12) takes on Minnesota (23-14, 6-12 Big Ten) on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on ESPN, or via ESPN3.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: The championship of the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament. These two teams are among the final eight Division I teams in action this season. Pittsburgh will host Washington State in the championship game of the College Basketball Invitational on Friday night. Then the Final Four gets under way on Saturday.

Stanford, a No. 3 seed in the NIT, won three home games to get to New York (against Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada), and then defeated Massachusetts 74-64 in the semifinals on Tuesday night at MSG.

Minnesota, a No. 6 seed in the NIT, won three road games to get to New York (against LaSalle, Miami and Middle Tennessee), and then defeated Washington 68-67 in overtime in the semifinals on Tuesday night at MSG.

THE CARDINAL: Stanford got off to a 10-1 start this season, its only loss coming versus Syracuse, 69-63 at Madison Square Garden on the day after Thanksgiving. But then it lost five of six games from mid-January to early February, finished seventh in the Pac-12 standings, and lost to California in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

The Cardinal, coached by former Duke guard and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins, have three players who average in double figures: 6-foot-1 freshman guard Chasson Randle (13.8 ppg, .434 3P%), 6-foot-8 senior forward Josh Owens (11.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Aaron Bright (11.6 ppg, 3.6 apg).

Stanford is 39th in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage (37.7), and 42nd in rebound margin (+4.6 per game). But it is 202nd in turnovers per game (13.8), and 257th in free throw percentage (66.5).

THE GOLDEN GOPHERS: Minnesota began the season 12-1, but lost its leading scorer, Trevor Mbakwe, to a torn in ACL in the team's seventh game of the season -- obviously a big blow. It then lost four straight games right after Christmas, and six in a row in February, finishing tied for ninth in the Big Ten with Illinois, and losing to Michigan in overtime in the conference tournament quarterfinals.

The Gophers, led by former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, have just one player currently averaging in double figures: 6-foot-7 junior forward Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg); 6-foot-3 junior guard Julian Welch, 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Austin Hollins and 6-foot-1 freshman guard Andre Hollins (no relation) chip in 9.6, 9.1 and 8.9 points per game, respectively.

Minnesota is 26th in the country in blocked shots per game (4.9), and 31st in assists per game (15.1). But it is 239th in 3-point field goals per game (5.4), and 245th in turnovers per game (14.5).

One final note: Tubby Smith is trying to become the 10th coach to win both an NCAA tournament title and an NIT title. That list currently includes Adolph Rupp, Al McGuire, Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.