No. 7 New Mexico State Aggies (23-10) at No. 2 Saint Mary's Gaels (27-5)
When: Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m. Pacific
Where: McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, Calif.
Regular season champs who don't win their league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament receive an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament. That's what we have here with Western Athletic Conference champs New Mexico State (13-1 WAC) and West Coast Conference co-champs Saint Mary's (15-3 WCC).
On top of a battle of conference champions we've also got a classic offense versus defense clash.
Saint Mary's boasts, as they have for essentially the entire season, the nation's best shooting offense. The Gaels connect on 50.9% of their shots from the field. And, per KenPom, also lead the nation in effective field goal percentage at 59.1%. The Aggies defense ranks seventh nationally by holding teams to a meager 44.5% effective field goal percentage.
These two teams have radically different approaches and skill sets. The only stylistic similarity is that both play methodical offense. Saint Mary's does that a la the San Antonio Spurs. New Mexico State does it because they're just not that good on the offensive end.
So this one should come down to whichever team utilizes its strength the best.
For the Aggies finds it way to 6-9 sophomore forward Pascal Siakam (20.3 ppg, 11.6 rpg), reigning WAC Player of the Year. The double-double machine is one of the two Aggies who average double figures scoring, the other being junior point guard Ian Baker (13.8 ppg). No other player averages over 6.5 points per contest.
Saint Mary's, on the other hand, is very balanced. Two point guards, Emmett Naar (14.3 ppg, 6.3 apg) and Joe Rahon (10.7 ppg, 5.5 apg), have been on the floor together for virtually the entire season. They rack up assists thanks to a bevy of bigs who can step out and shoot the three or back down opponents in the post.
Getting work done under the basket will be difficult for Saint Mary's Dane Pineau (11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and reserve Jock Landale (8.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg) due to the presence of Siakam. He picks up a block on 6.5% of opponents shots, leading the charge for the Aggies defense.
New Mexico State did not play a WCC opponent this season. Saint Mary's went 3-0 against the WAC with wins over Grand Canyon (73-64), Utah Valley (65-50) and WAC Tournament champs Cal State Bakersfield (94-59). All three games were played in Moraga, Calif.