Monday, April 1, 2013
NIT semis: One preview, one rematch
NEW YORK -- One of the National Invitation Tournament semifinals set for Tuesday night is a rematch. The other one is a preview -- of a future conference rivalry.
Maryland faces future Big Ten foe Iowa in the second semifinal on Tuesday night, after what should be an entertaining, up-tempo matchup between Baylor and BYU, two of the nation's better offenses.
The Cougars visited the Bears three months ago, and it didn't go very well for them. But this time the teams will meet on neutral hardwood at Madison Square Garden in the 76th NIT.
"We're not so excited to play Baylor," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "We played Baylor in December and they handled us pretty well."
The Cougars are hoping their second trip to New York this season goes better than the first one did. They had a pair of double-digit losses in November at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In the NIT, they beat Washington and Mercer at home, then won at Southern Miss to get back to the big city.
Only to find the Bears waiting for them. Baylor leads the country with more than 93 points per game, while BYU is fourth with 86.
Baylor won three straight at home to get here, beating Long Beach State, Arizona State and Providence. What hurt them during the regular season was losing six of their last eight conference games, including an immediate dismissal from the Big 12 tournament.
But there's almost never an NIT team that hasn't been overmatched at least a couple times during the season, otherwise they'd have made the NCAA tournament. Even so, six weeks ago, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon would have considered making Manhattan to be a bridge too far.
"About mid-February, I didn't know if we were ever going to figure it out," Turgeon said. "Hit rock bottom at Georgia Tech and since then our kids have been great."
That Feb. 27 loss in Atlanta dropped Maryland to 1-6 in the ACC. That hurt their NCAA tournament chances, but it didn't damage the Terrapins as a team too badly. Since then they've won six of nine, including their second win of the season over Duke, in the ACC tournament.
Then they reeled off wins over Niagara, Denver and at Alabama to reach the NIT's final four.
"I've got a lot of respect for these guys and this program and what they've done," Turgeon said. ""We feel like we're playing our best basketball of the season here late and we have a great team. Fun team to coach, fun team to be around. "
The Hawkeyes have been going full throttle for even longer. They've won 10 of their last 13 since a double-overtime loss at Wisconsin in early February. That strong finish wasn't enough to overcome losing seven of their first nine conference games in the brutal Big Ten, two of which were in overtime.
"We played teams well on the road," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "It seemed like every time we got in a game like that, somebody made a 3 with 10 seconds to go."
Then the Hawkeyes gave up a 13-point lead on Michigan State in the conference tournament, losing 59-56 in the quarterfinals. They've rebounded nicely with wins over Indiana State and Stony Brook at home, then finally got the tough road win they've sought all season at Virginia, where they ended the Cavaliers' 19-game winning streak in Charlottesville.
But that's what the final four of the NIT is all about -- flawed teams fixing themselves, and redeeming an imperfect season with a championship run. Even if its' not the big one everyone wants.
"Every coach dreams of playing in April, wants to play in April," Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Oh, and in the NIT, they get to do it in New York, at the arena Rose called "the Mecca of college basketball, of basketball itself."
"Right away, coaches know we have to do bed check," Drew said.
Turgeon pointed out another advantage: "It's been great for our families, too. You know, it's spring break for our families so we've kind of treated this like a family outing, so everybody's happy."