While the college basketball world is buzzing about next weekend’s NCAA tournament Final Four in Houston, we've got a Final Four of our own right here in our backyard, competing for the National Invitation Tournament championship.
It may lack the prestige of the Big Dance, but four quality teams have descended on the Big Apple this week -- three teams from BCS conferences, and a member of one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. They'll play on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Madison Square Garden, airing on ESPN2. And here's a preview of what you'll see:
Alabama (24-11): The Crimson Tide are led by second-year coach Anthony Grant, who in his previous stop piloted Virginia Commonwealth to two NCAA tournaments and an NIT berth in three years, and who recruited several of the key players on this year's VCU team that's in the NCAA Final Four. Alabama finished with the second-best record in the SEC, winning the Western Division at 12-4. It also beat Kentucky, another NCAA Final Four participant, 68-66 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 18. ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, listed Alabama as the very first team under the cutline in his final bracket projection before the selection show.
Key Players: Alabama's top two scorers are a pair of forwards -- 6-foot-6 sophomore Tony Mitchell (15.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .526 FG percentage) and 6-foot-8 junior JaMychal Green (15.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .496 FG percentage). And then there's 6-foot-1 point guard Trevor Releford (11.0 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 rpg), who made the All-SEC freshman team.
Key Stats: Alabama's strength is its defense -- and what's the old saying, defense wins championships? The Crimson Tide are third in the country in field-goal percentage defense (38.3 percent), sixth in steals (9.4 per game) and seventh in points allowed per game (59.2) -- that's pretty impressive stuff.
Colorado (24-13): Many people thought the Buffaloes belonged in the NCAA tournament instead of, say, VCU -- after all, they beat Kansas State three times, and also had wins over Texas and Missouri. Colorado finished tied for fifth in the Big 12 with Mizzou at 8-8 under first-year coach Tad Boyle, who was hired after spending four seasons at Northern Colorado. The team's 24 total wins this season are the most in school history.
Key Players: Colorado has four players who average in double-figures in scoring, but the star is 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Alec Burks (20.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), the No. 18 scorer in the country. Burks is one of only four players nationally to average more than 20 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this season. Beyond Burks, keep an eye on 6-foot-5 senior guard Cory Higgins (16.1 ppg), who has 1,998 career points, and needs 14 more in the NIT to top Richard Roby and become the school's all-time leading scorer.
Key Stats: It will be a severe contrast of styles when Colorado and Alabama face off in the second semifinal on Tuesday night, because Colorado is one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 11 in the nation in scoring (80.1 ppg), and No. 16 in field goal percentage (47.5). Even better, they're No. 5 from the charity stripe, knocking down 77.6 percent of their free throws.
Washington State (22-12): The Cougars finished in sixth place in the Pac-10 this season at 9-9 under second-year coach Ken Bone, who replaced Tony Bennett after he departed for Virginia. Washington State beat their arch-rival and NCAA tournament-bound Washington twice, blew out Gonzaga by 22, and lost by just two to Elite Eight participant Arizona on Jan. 22
Key Players: Colorado's Burks isn't even the best scorer in the NIT Final Four -- that honor goes to Washington State's Klay Thompson. The 6-foot-6 junior guard is averaging 22.0 points per game, leading the Pac-10 and ranking him ninth nationally. Thompson's 727 points this season are the most by a Pac-10 player since Eddie House scored 736 in 1999-2000. (Thompson was also arrested on March 4 and cited for marijuana possession, and suspended for the Cougars' regular-season finale against UCLA). Washington State's second-leading scorer is 6-foot-4 junior guard Faisal Aden, who averages 12.9 points per game off the bench.
Key Stats: Washington State, like Alabama, is also very good on the defensive end -- the Cougars are No. 18 in the country in field-goal percentage defense (39.6 percent), and No. 30 in 3-point field goal defense (31.4). But their numbers offensively are also good, scoring 73.7 points per game (No. 54 in country) and shooting 45.9 percent (No. 59).
Wichita State (27-8): The Shockers are the lone non-BCS team in the NIT Final Four, but they had an excellent season, finishing in second place in the always-tough Missouri Valley Conference at 14-4, one game behind Missouri State. Wichita State played two of this year's NCAA Final Four participants -- losing by just four to UConn in Maui in November, and losing by just one at home to VCU on BracketBusters weekend in February. Head coach Gregg Marshall, in his fourth year, led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years, before moving on to Wichita.
Key Players: Wichita State has just one player who averages in double-figures in scoring -- 6-foot-8 senior center J.T. Durley. But even he only scores 11.4 points per game. The Shockers have about as balanced an attack as you'll ever see -- 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game, and no one averages more than 26 minutes. Eight players average at least six points per game.
Key Stats: The Shockers are No. 7 in the country in rebounding margin, outboarding opponents by an average of 7.9 per game -- that's outstanding. They're also a very good shooting team, making 46.7 percent from the field (No. 34 in country) and 74.6 percent from the foul line (No. 35).
Alabama's defense is strong enough for the Crimson Tide to prevail over Colorado, while Klay Thompson has a big game in leading Washington State over Wichita State. And in the championship game on Thursday night, Alabama puts the shackles on Thompson, and Anthony Grant gets to hoist the NIT trophy, before watching his former players take on Butler in a fairy-tale NCAA national semifinal.