Thursday, March 30, 2006

NIT Championship Game Preview

Michigan vs. South Carolina (7:00 PM, ESPN): So which will it be? South Carolina is going for their second straight NIT title, while Michigan is aiming for their second in three years. Don't look at the previous game for either team for an edge. Both the Gamecocks and the Wolverines had blowout victories, although the scores are misleading. Michigan won by 23 and South Carolina 15, but USC was much more impressive. Louisville took an early lead but once the Gamecocks figured out the Cardinals' press, it was easy baskets all day for USC. In the other game, Old Dominion was in the lead for the majority of the first half and kept it close during the first part of the second half. However, Michigan began wearing the Monarchs' out down low and ODU's injuries and lack of depth began to catch up to them. Michigan did not play their A-game and still won by 23, while USC played one of their best games of the season.

Michigan has built off their disappointment of being left out of the NCAA Tournament and has been impressive in their run to the NIT Title Game. The Wolverines slumped down the stretch and were one of the last teams out of the Big Dance. Daniel Horton is one of the best point guards in the country and is a good scorer and passer. Wings Dion Harris and Lester Abram are both athletic scorers who can get to the basket. Abram played excellent defense on ODU's Isaiah Hunter, holding him to 1 of 15 shooting. Harris needs to improve off of his previous game, where he shot 1 for 9 and had only 5 points. Jerret Smith played a very solid game off the bench when Horton was in foul trouble. Up front, Courtney Sims has a lot of potential and has shown it at times. However, at other times, he fails to show up—which just happens to be in most of Michigan’s losses. He dominated the Monarchs in the semi-finals. Chris Hunter is an active player at both ends of the floor, while Graham Brown is a garbage-type player that gets rebounds. Brent Petway is very athletic and can change the momentum of a game with his dunking ability.

South Carolina has ridden an SEC Tournament finals run into another appearance at Madison Square Garden. They are athletic, crash the boards, and play solid defense. Against Louisville, they had the ability to isolate any of their players to get easy baskets. Their backcourt is one of the more underrated ones in the country. Tre Kelley is a good all-around player who is very quick with the ball, while Tarence Kinsey can do a variety of things on the court. He is the team's best scorer. Renaldo Balkman is playing the best basketball of his career down the stretch of the season. He was the star of the semi-final game against Louisville, getting 23 points and 4 blocks. His ability to run the floor and finish was really a plus for the Gamecocks. Brandon Wallace is a very good shot-blocker who is playing well lately. He had a career-high 19 points against the Cardinals. Rocky Trice is another athletic player on the wing who can do a little bit of everything. Bryce Sheldon is the only player that sees extensive time off the bench.

Both teams are playing excellent basketball lately, which means we should be in for a better game than we saw in the semi-finals. The key is going to be the transition defense of Michigan and the interior defense of South Carolina. If Michigan decides to press South Carolina, they could be in trouble. They used pressure against Old Dominion and it worked, but USC showed against Louisville that they can get a plethora of easy baskets once they break the press. On the other side, USC's post defense is going to need to play very well to counter Michigan's inside presence of Courtney Sims. Balkman has played stellar lately, and will need another excellent defensive performance. Moreover, for Michigan, Dion Harris and Daniel Horton are going to need to play better. They shot a combined 5 for 20 against Old Dominion, and that won't cut it against the Gamecocks. Another key for South Carolina is going to be their ability to hit threes. If Michigan makes them play in the half-court, Kelley and Kinsey are going to need to hit their outside shots. They only hit 21% of their threes in the semi-finals. That has to go up if they are going to win this game. When it comes down to it, I think South Carolina's athleticism and versatility are going to be the difference for them. Their ability to spread the floor and attack the basket killed Louisville, and I think it will do the same to Michigan.

Prediction: South Carolina 66, Michigan 63

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