Photo courtesy of Memphis athletics
Being left out of the field of 68 and the NCAA Tournament is incredibly disappointing, as it was for both the Mississippi State Bulldogs (18-14, 8-10 SEC) and the Memphis Tigers (19-8, 11-4 AAC).
But both were selected to take part in this year’s 16-team field NIT — typically a 32-team field in a non-COVID season. That means both were selected for more than just the NIT; both were selected for a second chance.
As we embark on Sunday’s NIT Championship that’ll feature both the Bulldogs and the Tigers, we can’t but think about the venue change.
The multitude of NIT Final Four’s that have taken place at Madison Square Garden each year since 1938 fuels the history that oozes out of the NIT year in and year out.
This year, the venue will be a little different.
The Comerica Center in Frisco, Tex. will be the host for this year’s final, and while it may not take place inside “The Mecca of Basketball,” these teams still get to compete for an NIT Championship.
After all, “This Is March.”
Game Day Information
When: Sunday, March 28, 12 p.m. ET
Where: Comerica Center, Frisco, TX
PXP: John Schriffen
Analyst: Fran Fraschilla
Line: Memphis -4
Cue The Cowbells
We’ll start with the fourth-seeded Bulldogs, out of the SEC. They are headed to the NIT final for the first time in school history.
It was a solid season in Starkville for sixth-year head coach Ben Howland’s bunch, who were picked to finish 12th in the SEC.
The Bulldogs proved the doubters wrong though, as they secured the No. 9 seed in Nashville for the SEC Tournament, and was seen as a team on “the bubble of the bubble” for the majority of the season.
“It’s going to be fun for our team to be playing for the (NIT) championship,” Howland said following his team’s victory over Louisiana Tech in the NIT semifinals. “Here we are almost to the end of March and our guys have had a very good finish to the season.”
Howland is no stranger to championship seeking. The 63-year-old reached the Final Four in three consecutive seasons back at UCLA from 2006-08.
Inside The Bulldogs
Mississippi State dominated No. 4 seed Louisiana Tech 84-62 in Saturday’s semifinals to reach the title game.
Sophomore guard Iverson Molinar led the way for the Bulldogs with 25 points in the blowout victory. The Panama native averages 16.8 points per game, with DJ Stewart trailing just behind him with 16.2 points a contest. Stewart added 23 points in the winning effort over another group of Bulldogs.
Those two guards complement each other nicely at the top of the key for Mississippi State, with Tolu Smith also providing big man help down low for the Bulldogs. Smith averages nearly nine rebounds per game.
It wasn’t a season of parity for the boys from Starkville, as Mississippi State really beat the teams it should’ve, but didn’t pick up a ton of other quality wins. It also didn’t lose games it wasn’t supposed to. Wins over Florida and then-No. 13 Missouri stand out as quality wins for the Bulldogs, while a home blowout loss to Vanderbilt may serve as their worst defeat.
Victories over No. 1 seed Saint Louis, No. 2 seed Richmond, and the aforementioned Louisiana Tech win has Mississippi State in the NIT final. It will now prepare to face what could be its toughest test of the tournament in top-seeded Memphis.
It had to be tough for the Tigers to not hear their name called on Selection Sunday. No. 1 seed Memphis was right on the bubble all throughout the stretch run of the season.
Head coach Penny Hardaway’s team will try to prove the committee wrong by taking home an NIT championship — Memphis’ first since 2002.
Hardaway’s team stood out in a pesky American Athletic Conference, as the Tigers earned the No. 3 seed in this year’s conference tournament. The Tigers placed behind two tournament participants – Wichita State, and current Final Four hopeful Houston, who defeated Memphis 76-74 in the conference semifinals.
They’re also coming off a blowout victory in the NIT semifinals against a one-seed Colorado State, 90-67 where Virginia Tech transfer Landers Nolley went off for 27 points.
Nolley is the team’s leading scorer at 12.7 points a clip, while DeAndre Williams (11.2 points per game) and Lester Quinones (9.3 points per game) also added 21 and 18 points, respectively, in the 23-point win over the Rams.
Inside The Tigers
“Memphis is really good,” Howland expressed. “They’re very well coached, they have great personnel. They play a very difficult style.
“They’re constantly pressuring you trying to create havoc with their defense,” he continued. “They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re very good on the glass and they shoot the ball well.”
Howland had high praise for Nolley.
“He’s a phenomenal shooter,” Howland said. “They have a lot of guys who can play.”
For Memphis, salvaging an NIT title would be something special.
It has had a very good year. The Tigers’ best win is likely a 72-52 home trouncing of regular-season champion Wichita State. But they’ve lost to Houston twice by just a combined five points. In the NIT, wins over No. 4 seed Dayton, No. 2 seed Boise State, and previously mentioned No. 1 seed Colorado State have propelled the Tigers into the championship game.
They’re a well balanced basketball team, and with their defensive pressure and offensive ability, could’ve made noise in Indianapolis had they qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
Whoever wins this game has all the momentum heading into the 2021-22 season. They’ll go out a champion.
Both teams are playing as hot as anyone in the country right now, even with March Madness currently taking place. But with the scrappiness on the defensive end by Memphis, we have to lean towards the Tigers to win this one in Frisco.
Memphis will be crowned NIT champions, taking home the trophy for the first time in nearly two decades.
Prediction: (1) Memphis 70, (4) Mississippi State 61