After a hard-fought, grind-it-out victory over Pittsburgh two nights ago, Michigan returns to Madison Square Garden to take on Bruce Weber’s Kansas State Wildcats in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-off. The Wolverines got a taste of the big stage on Wednesday night against a formidable opponent that should find its way into the Big Dance come March while Kansas State barely clawed its way to a 66-63 semifinal win over the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens. Today’s final (4:30pm on ESPN) pits these two unbeaten teams against each other for all the marbles. The game may look one-sided on paper, but here are some things to pay attention to:
1. Preparation: There are a couple reasons for scheduling these so-called “preseason” tournaments at the beginning of the college basketball season. Obviously money, camaraderie, and national attention play a part in it, but teams are also looking for solid opponents early on to prepare for the conference season, fun match-ups on big-time stages, and, perhaps most importantly, preparation for what is to come in March. With less than two full days to prepare for the next game, a neutral floor, and an unfamiliar opponent, the NIT Season Tip-off really has the feel of the NCAA Tournament. For Michigan fans, this could come with a bit of angst, as coach John Beilein has never led his Wolverines to more than one victory in the Big Dance, but he is known as being one of the best Xs and Os coaches in the college game, which should give Michigan a slight advantage against Kansas State. Beilein’s unique offense is also often noted for being incredibly difficult to prepare for, especially with a short turn-around from a previous game, and if Beilein decides to try the 1-3-1 zone again today after using it effectively against Pitt, Bruce Weber is going to have fits. There is simply no way to prepare for both of these schemes in a 44-hour timeframe. One more preparation advantage that should go Michigan’s way: both coaches are familiar with each other after going head-to-head for five years in the Big Ten, but Weber is brand new at Kansas State, so his players are still adjusting to new sets and will have very little knowledge of Beilein’s offense or defense while Beilein has some veterans that have had time to grasp the system.
2. Balance: Kansas State’s star player is unanimous preseason All-Big 12 First Team selection Rodney McGruder, but he has struggled so far this season and is only averaging 10 points and four rebounds per game while shooting 2-of-15 (13.3%) from downtown. Weber’s approach thus far has seemed to stress a balanced attack that won’t rely on one or two dominant players but will ride the hot hand on any given night. So far, it has worked, as the Wildcats sit at 5-0 and have only had one close call. A whopping 11 Kansas State players average more than 10 minutes per game and nine of those 11 score more than five points per game. Obviously these numbers are a bit skewed due to the competition level so far (North Dakota, Lamar, Alabama-Huntsville, North Florida, and Delaware), but it is apparent that Michigan should see a variety of looks with a hectic substitution pace on the other bench. Knowing the scouting report and opposing player tendencies is always important when so many different players will be seeing the floor, so Michigan will have to pay special attention to Kansas State’s five shooters in Angel Rodriguez, McGruder, Will Spradling, Shane Southwell, and Martavious Irving while being aware of each players’ abilities. Michigan’s balanced attack has been solid so far as well, with four guys in double digits, but their scoring punch should be more predictable.
3. Possession: Every statistic in basketball ultimately filters down to one thing: possessions. No, the team with the most possessions isn’t necessarily the winning team every time, but the goal of just about every coach is to maximize the number and efficiency of possessions for their team and limit the number and efficiency of possessions for the opponent. Historically John Beilein has done this by cutting down on his own team’s turnovers and limiting fast-break opportunities for the opponent, thus maximizing his possessions and minimizing the effectiveness of the other teams’ possessions. This season, we have seen a slight philosophical change as Michigan continues to rebound well offensively while still limiting the opponents’ fast breaks and holding onto the ball. The Wolverines are able to do this because they have more size, speed, length, and athleticism than in past years. Kansas State’s biggest weakness so far has been on the offensive end, where they have struggled shooting the ball (43% from the field) and have coughed up the ball at an unacceptable rate (13 turnovers per game). If the Wildcats continue to shoot poorly and turn the ball over to Michigan tonight, it will not be a pretty sight for Weber. On the other hand, if Kansas State starts playing well early on, look for Beilein to give the 1-3-1 a shot to switch up the tempo and force some turnovers.
Prediction: On paper this game looks like it will be all Michigan, and even though paper and stats aren’t always right, I have a hard time seeing how Kansas State will keep up throughout. Michigan will get back on track from long range and dominate the turnover game on its way to a 71-58 championship victory.