First Round NIT:
No. 1 SMU (23-9) vs No. 8 UC Irvine (23-11)
9:00 PM EST
What to watch for: Southern Methodist
SMU was supposedly "snubbed" from the NCAA tournament. However, with bad losses to South Florida and Temple during mid-season plus an early exit out of the Big East Tournament, the Mustangs should be excited to have a top seed in the NIT.
This team ranks 16th in the nation in field goal percentage (48.7%), despite their relatively low scoring offense (71.2 PPG). This means that the Mustangs love to take their time and pass around to get the open shot.
Nic Moore may be leading scorer for the Mustangs, but Markus Kennedy is the real danger. The forward makes 54.6% of his field goals, to average 12.1 PPG and 6.9 RPG. If you really want to hurt SMU, foul them and send them to the line. The Mustangs ranked 225th in the nation in free throw percentage, on average getting to the line 23 times per game, yet only making 16. This does not bode well if it comes down to closing out a game.
What to watch for: UC Irvine
This was supposed to be the Anteaters' year. They were picked pre-season to finish first in the Big West and had done so in conference play. Then the unthinkable happened: Cal Poly first upset UC Santa Barbara, then shocked UC Irvine, beating them in the semi-finals of the Big West Tournament.
If SMU is a great field goal shooting team despite not many attempts, then UC Irvine is a fantastic assist team. All the Anteaters have to do is get the ball to their big men Will Davis II and Mamadou Ndiaye and let the easy scores come.
Ndiaye may be the 7'6" giant on the team, but it is Luke Nelson who has shown the most offensive productivity for the Anteaters. The English freshman is averaging 11.7 PPG, and that's after a sluggish spell that has hit him recently (only 8.4 PPG the last five games). Will Davis II has also been on an offensive tear lately, averaging 16.0 PPG over the last four games.
This game has SMU at a 9.5 point favorite over the Anteaters right now (O/U set at 126.5) and really, this is only because SMU comes from the American Athletic Conference. Both teams are very similar in style of play, points scored and points allowed. It might be the closest No. 1 vs No. 8 match-up there is, and for this reason, I'm going to pick the Anteaters in the upset. SMU is good in the paint, but the Anteaters rank 6th in the nation in blocks thanks to Ndiaye and Davis II, and very few people can drive against this team (just ask Alan Williams!). Expect a low-scoring game that comes down to the last possession.
UC Irvine 68, SMU 67