When: Tuesday, April 1st
Where: Madison Square Garden
OUTLOOK: Well folks, it only gets tougher from here. That is to be expected in these types of tournaments as flukey teams can't put together enough wins to make it this far. It's the Tigers against number 1 seeds from the other quadrants. Clemson gets the team that really got hosed by the NCAA selection committee. SMU fell victim to a late season slide of 3 losses in a row that really cost them. However, they have the pedigree and makeup of a team that certainly should have made the NCAA. They were incredible at home with only one loss at the hands of Final Four contender Louisville. They rode that home dominance to Madison Square Garden where they await the Tigers. For the first time in the NIT, the Tigers are not favored by KenPom who gives the Mustangs the 60% win probability edge.
In case you didn't know, SMU is led by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who in my humble opinion is one of the top 5 coaches to ever coach the game. His resume is incredible and includes a college national title at Kansas and an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons (pulling off one of the biggest NBA finals upsets ever when they took out the Shaq/Kobe Laker Dynasty). Perhaps even MORE impressive is how Brown managed to get the freaking L.A. Clippers to the playoffs BEFORE they tried to get guys like Chris Paul on the roster. He also took the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA finals with one good player and a bunch of also-ran role guys. He has now quickly gotten SMU off the basketball mat and made them a force in their conference. The only real knock on Brown's career to me was the failure of the Olympic Team he headed which was the only NBA player team that didn't win gold. He didn't have all the major American stars on that team but he DID have a young Lebron James who sat the bench most of the time. Long story short, he can flat out coach and generally maximizes his talent.
Moore leads the team with 13.5 points per game and 4.9 assists. He is the star of the team and Clemson must keep him under wraps and out of the paint as much as possible. He's both the point guard but also a guy SMU will run sets for to get shots, such as the one that won the Cal game. He's stroked the 3 at 44.5% on 155 attempts, so it is another guy like what the Tigers saw from Georgia State and Belmont. The American Conference featured some top flight guards and Moore is right up there with the guys leading UConn and Louisville in the Big Dance. Clemson cannot afford for Rod Hall to have another sub-par performance in this matchup.
Kennedy is SMU's top rebounder at 7 a game. He can also block shots with 44 on the season. Clemson will try to attack him with Landry Nnoko in the paint. We'll see if SMU chooses to let Kennedy play Nnoko straight up if they are in man-to-man or send the hard doubles like Belmont chose to do.
Russell comes in at just under 10 points a game and 3.3 assists, so he can create as well. He actually put up 14 a game in 2012-2013 but has deferred his scoring a bit this year for the greater good. He is a streaky shooter from 3 and is just at 33% but can get it going like he did vs. LSU when he went 4-5. He seems similar in that regard to Damarcus Harrison. That will be an interesting matchup to watch as well.
SMU gets double digit minutes from seven other guys for a 10 deep rotation. Of the rest, you have to watch out for guard Keith Frazier who is shooting 40.6% from 3. He's been steadily giving SMU 2 or 3 3-point makes a game here lately.
THE BAD NEWS: Always do the bad news first, right? SMU is nearly as proficient on offense as Georgia State and Belmont but superior defensively by a pretty good margin. Also, they are from a multiple bid high major league and have that type of talent up front as well as on the perimeter. The athleticism in this game is going to be pretty close. KenPom has them in the top 20 in adjusted efficiency defense, effective FG% defense, and steal percentage. Meanwhile their offense is top 20 in FG% and top 40 in adjusted FG%. This team is on par with the Pittsburgh's of the world and a night of poor shooting and/or poor ball security will spell doom for the Tigers.
THE GOOD NEWS: SMU was not the same team on the road and in neutral sites, which is what ultimately cost them a bid to the NCAA tourney. 8 of their 9 losses came in this fashion and among those were Temple, South Florida, and Houston (all ranked in the 100's on KenPom). Looking over their season, it appears that keeping Nic Moore under wraps increases the chances of beating SMU exponentially. Louisville held Moore to 5 points in both games and swept the Mustangs. Of course, the Cardinals have Russ Smith and others to terrorize you with. It will be ultra important for Rod Hall and Adonis Filer to do a great job keeping Moore covered up and out of the paint. The team will have to communicate well when SMU runs Moore off of double staggered screens and such. Just as folks try to keep K.J. McDaniels down and force Clemson's supporting cast to beat them, much the same applies to SMU and Moore. In the 9 SMU losses, Moore went for less than 10 in 4 of them.