New York Colleges: Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State wins the NIT, and much more

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
10:55
PM ET

NEW YORK -- They did not play in front of a packed house. And they did not have the attention of the nation, as four teams in Houston will on Saturday night.

But a group of college basketball players from Wichita, Kansas, got to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

Talk about a memory of a lifetime.

"I'm just ecstatic," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, after his team defeated Alabama 66-57 to win the 2011 NIT championship. "Just a special group of guys that deserve everything that they now have coming to them."

Wichita State (29-8), out of the Missouri Valley Conference, had an impressive run in this tournament, knocking off teams from the Big 12 (Nebraska), ACC (Virginia Tech), Pac-10 (Washington State) and SEC (Alabama), along with fellow mid-major Charleston.

In the process, the Shockers broke the school record for wins in a season, and erased some of the sting of a heartbreaking loss to Indiana State in the Missouri Valley tournament semifinals. Wichita State was dreaming big dreams, and had its sights firmly set on the Big Dance.

"It was a devastating loss," Marshall said. "But you have to deal with the rough moments, the down slides. ... By and large, 29 and 8, coming here, beating all the teams in this tournament, winning a championship, seeing all the smiles on these kids' faces, seeing all the yellow there on the Madison Square Garden floor. And I know Wichita is on fire. I think it's a pretty big deal."

Wichita State wore down Alabama with its depth -- which was rather appropriate, considering the Shockers have been winning games that way all season. Only one player averages in double figures in scoring, and 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game. Ten players scored for Wichita State on Thursday night.

"Their depth, size, physicality and skill was just too much for us today," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant. "I thought they played outstanding."

Alabama kept it close until about four minutes remaining. That's when senior guard Graham Hatch, who came in averaging just six points per game, buried back-to-back 3-pointers that put Wichita State out of reach. Hatch was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

"I'm so happy I was able to be there for my team when they needed me," Hatch said. "To be in this opportunity and winning such an amazing tournament as the NIT in this atmosphere, I just couldn't have imagined it. … It's magical."

Speaking of magic, many college basketball fans around the country are still in disbelief that Virginia Commonwealth will be playing in the NCAA tournament's Final Four on Saturday night.

Wichita State faced VCU just six weeks ago, and lost by a single point. The Shockers also played another team in the Final Four, UConn, losing by just four back in November.

"Two of the teams in the Final Four, we could have easily won those games," Marshall said. "You'd have to sit and watch film and understand the film that I watch to understand what I'm saying. They won the games. They deserved to win the games, they deserve to be in the Final Four, they're both great teams. But we could have easily beaten either one of them with one different whistle, one different play. So when you think about that, I know we're a pretty good basketball team."

Indeed they are. They've proven that in this tournament, and over the past five months. Nevertheless, the Shockers will be watching on Saturday night, just like the rest of us.

Wichita State will undoubtedly wonder what might have been. They will wonder if they could have been the ones in Houston, playing the role of Cinderella.

But at least they'll have something else to hold onto. Something else to cheer them up, and cherish.

"It's something our team's gonna have for the rest of our life -- the memory of winning at Madison Square Garden," said Wichita State center Garrett Stutz. "That's the biggest thing. We're always gonna remember this day."

That's a pretty darn good consolation prize.

Rapid Reaction: Wichita St. 66, Alabama 57

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
9:06
PM ET
NEW YORK -- A quick take on Wichita State's 66-57 win over Alabama on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden:

WHAT IT MEANS: Wichita State, a No. 4 seed, wins the National Invitation Tournament by knocking off its second No. 1 seed of the week, Alabama. The Shockers win their first NIT championship, in their first title game appearance. Wichita State finishes its season at 29-8 -- the 29 wins are a school record.

Alabama has now lost both times it's played in the NIT championship game (the other being against Tulsa in 2001). The Crimson Tide tie New York University and Notre Dame with the most NIT semifinal appearances without winning a championship (six). Alabama finishes its season at 25-12.

THE SKINNY: The first half was a tight, back-and-forth affair -- a little more high-scoring than you would expect, with two of the top 30 defensive teams in the country (both give up less than 62 points per game). Alabama led by as many as five, Wichita State by as many as eight. The Shockers led the Crimson Tide 37-34 at the break. Both teams shot 50 percent from the field in the first half. Wichita State had a 16-10 advantage on the boards, but also committed 10 turnovers.

Alabama came back and took a one-point lead early in the second half, but then Wichita State went on a run, opening the lead back out to eight. Alabama's leading scorer, JaMychal Green, got in foul trouble for the second straight game, going out with four fouls with 10:59 remaining. The Crimson Tide kept it close, until Graham Hatch buried back-to-back treys to push a 58-52 lead to 64-52 with three minutes remaining. The game was over right there.

STAR WATCH: Hatch and J.T. Durley led a balanced Wichita State attack with 12 points apiece -- Hatch made all four of his field-goal attempts, and all four were from beyond the 3-point arc, including those two Alabama back-breakers.

Tony Mitchell had 13 points to lead Alabama, while Green added 12.

NUMBER CRUNCH: In a pretty tight game, 3-point shooting played a pivotal role (as it often does in college basketball). The Shockers made seven of their 15 attempts from beyond the arc -- the Crimson Tide made just two of 14.

WHAT'S NEXT: Sadly, there are no more games left for either of these teams -- their seasons are over.

W2W4: NIT championship game

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
12:46
PM ET
Here are three things to watch in Thursday night's NIT championship game between Alabama (25-11) and Wichita State (28-8) at Madison Square Garden.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m., and the game will air on ESPN2 and ESPN3.com.

D UP! Expect a tight, relatively low-scoring affair on Thursday night. Alabama is one of the top defensive teams in the country -- ranked third in defensive field goal percentage (38.3), and seventh in points allowed per game (59.2). Wichita State is No. 53 in defensive field goal percentage (40.9), and No. 28 in points allowed (61.8) -- and the Shockers absolutely suffocated Washington State in their semifinal Tuesday night, holding the Cougars to a season-low 44 points, and holding star guard Klay Thompson to a season-low six.

BROADWAY SHOW: Both teams feature pretty balanced attacks offensively -- question is, who will step up on the big stage Thursday night? Alabama's JaMychal Green (15.6 ppg) had 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting against Colorado on Tuesday, before fouling out with 2:27 remaining -- can he stay out of foul trouble and have another big game? No one on Wichita State averages more than 11 points per game, but 7-foot junior Garrett Stutz came off the bench on Tuesday and had the best game of his career, with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Could he have a similar impact against an Alabama front line over which he'll have a definitive height advantage? Or, will someone else step up, for either team?

GLASS WORK: Wichita State is No. 6 in the country in rebounding margin, outboarding opponents by an average of 8.4 per game. And the Shockers destroyed Washington State on the glass Tuesday night, by a tally of 52 to 25. The Crimson Tide are a pretty good rebounding team themselves (No. 79, plus-3.0), but they must crash the boards on Thursday night -- if not, they're in trouble.

Both of these teams played very hard on Tuesday -- clearly winning the NIT means something to each of them. For Wichita State, it's the Shockers' first-ever NIT championship game. Alabama has been here once before, losing to Tulsa in the 2001 title game.

Alabama had a win over Kentucky, an NCAA Final Four participant, this season. Wichita State had very close losses to two other Final Four teams -- by four against UConn, and by one against VCU. These are two very good teams that will take the floor at the Garden on Thursday night. Enjoy the game.

The NIT Final Four -- a preview

March, 28, 2011
3/28/11
5:06
PM ET
While the college basketball world is buzzing about next weekend’s NCAA tournament Final Four in Houston, we've got a Final Four of our own right here in our backyard, competing for the National Invitation Tournament championship.

It may lack the prestige of the Big Dance, but four quality teams have descended on the Big Apple this week -- three teams from BCS conferences, and a member of one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. They'll play on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Madison Square Garden, airing on ESPN2. And here's a preview of what you'll see:

THE FAVORITE

Alabama (24-11): The Crimson Tide are led by second-year coach Anthony Grant, who in his previous stop piloted Virginia Commonwealth to two NCAA tournaments and an NIT berth in three years, and who recruited several of the key players on this year's VCU team that's in the NCAA Final Four. Alabama finished with the second-best record in the SEC, winning the Western Division at 12-4. It also beat Kentucky, another NCAA Final Four participant, 68-66 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 18. ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, listed Alabama as the very first team under the cutline in his final bracket projection before the selection show.

Key Players: Alabama's top two scorers are a pair of forwards -- 6-foot-6 sophomore Tony Mitchell (15.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .526 FG percentage) and 6-foot-8 junior JaMychal Green (15.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .496 FG percentage). And then there's 6-foot-1 point guard Trevor Releford (11.0 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 rpg), who made the All-SEC freshman team.

Key Stats: Alabama's strength is its defense -- and what's the old saying, defense wins championships? The Crimson Tide are third in the country in field-goal percentage defense (38.3 percent), sixth in steals (9.4 per game) and seventh in points allowed per game (59.2) -- that's pretty impressive stuff.

THE CONTENDER

Colorado (24-13): Many people thought the Buffaloes belonged in the NCAA tournament instead of, say, VCU -- after all, they beat Kansas State three times, and also had wins over Texas and Missouri. Colorado finished tied for fifth in the Big 12 with Mizzou at 8-8 under first-year coach Tad Boyle, who was hired after spending four seasons at Northern Colorado. The team's 24 total wins this season are the most in school history.

Key Players: Colorado has four players who average in double-figures in scoring, but the star is 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Alec Burks (20.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), the No. 18 scorer in the country. Burks is one of only four players nationally to average more than 20 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this season. Beyond Burks, keep an eye on 6-foot-5 senior guard Cory Higgins (16.1 ppg), who has 1,998 career points, and needs 14 more in the NIT to top Richard Roby and become the school's all-time leading scorer.

Key Stats: It will be a severe contrast of styles when Colorado and Alabama face off in the second semifinal on Tuesday night, because Colorado is one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 11 in the nation in scoring (80.1 ppg), and No. 16 in field goal percentage (47.5). Even better, they're No. 5 from the charity stripe, knocking down 77.6 percent of their free throws.

THE SLEEPER

Washington State (22-12): The Cougars finished in sixth place in the Pac-10 this season at 9-9 under second-year coach Ken Bone, who replaced Tony Bennett after he departed for Virginia. Washington State beat their arch-rival and NCAA tournament-bound Washington twice, blew out Gonzaga by 22, and lost by just two to Elite Eight participant Arizona on Jan. 22

Key Players: Colorado's Burks isn't even the best scorer in the NIT Final Four -- that honor goes to Washington State's Klay Thompson. The 6-foot-6 junior guard is averaging 22.0 points per game, leading the Pac-10 and ranking him ninth nationally. Thompson's 727 points this season are the most by a Pac-10 player since Eddie House scored 736 in 1999-2000. (Thompson was also arrested on March 4 and cited for marijuana possession, and suspended for the Cougars' regular-season finale against UCLA). Washington State's second-leading scorer is 6-foot-4 junior guard Faisal Aden, who averages 12.9 points per game off the bench.

Key Stats: Washington State, like Alabama, is also very good on the defensive end -- the Cougars are No. 18 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (39.6 percent), and No. 30 in 3-point field goal defense (31.4). But their numbers offensively are also good, scoring 73.7 points per game (No. 54 in country) and shooting 45.9 percent (No. 59).

THE LONGSHOT

Wichita State (27-8): The Shockers are the lone non-BCS team in the NIT Final Four, but they had an excellent season, finishing in second place in the always-tough Missouri Valley Conference at 14-4, one game behind Missouri State. Wichita State played two of this year's NCAA Final Four participants -- losing by just four to UConn in Maui in November, and losing by just one at home to VCU on BracketBusters weekend in February. Head coach Gregg Marshall, in his fourth year, led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years, before moving on to Wichita.

Key Players: Wichita State has just one player who averages in double-figures in scoring -- 6-foot-8 senior center J.T. Durley. But even he only scores 11.4 points per game. The Shockers have about as balanced an attack as you'll ever see -- 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game, and no one averages more than 26 minutes. Eight players average at least six points per game.

Key Stats: The Shockers are No. 7 in the country in rebounding margin, outboarding opponents by an average of 7.9 per game -- that's outstanding. They're also a very good shooting team, making 46.7 percent from the field (No. 34 in country) and 74.6 percent from the foul line (No. 35).

PREDICTION

Alabama's defense is strong enough for the Crimson Tide to prevail over Colorado, while Klay Thompson has a big game in leading Washington State over Wichita State. And in the championship game on Thursday night, Alabama puts the shackles on Thompson, and Anthony Grant gets to hoist the NIT trophy, before watching his former players take on Butler in a fairy-tale NCAA national semifinal.

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