Much of postseason college basketball success has to do with how a team is playing right before it reaches elimination action.
Count Utah and Penn State in that group.
The Utes and Nittany Lions meet in the National Invitational Tournament final on Thursday in New York thanks to a hot streak for each squad. Utah went 6-4 in its final 10 games of the regular season, and though it was a flame-out in the Pac-12 Tournament, Larry Krystowiak’s squad hasn’t met a team it can’t out-will in the NIT.
The Utes took care of UC-Davis in the opening round, defeated No. 3-seed LSU in a 24-point blowout, headed west to defeat St. Mary’s in a grind-it-out game, and then seized their first Big Apple moment by outlasting No. 4 seed Western Kentucky in the NIT semifinal on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Penn State, meanwhile, stunned Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament for a third time before falling to Purdue and landing as a No. 4 seed in the NIT. The Lions quickly went to work, edging in-state rival Temple before stunning a team many thought should have been in the NCAA Tournament in No. 1 seed Notre Dame. Penn State then squeaked past Marquette before riding a 3-point barrage to a 15-point win over Mississippi State in the semifinal.
What do we have in these two teams? Plenty of surprise, for one.
Utah was a middling Pac-12 team that seemed to relish being the road warriors as this tournament progressed. Justin Bibbins leads Utah on the offensive end, averaging 14.7 points and 4.7 assists per game — and a hot 44.3 percent from deep. The Utes boast a collection of players who can catch fire at any time and can knock down an important shot. Against St. Mary’s, those honors belonged to Sedrick Barefield and Tyler Rawson, with the latter canning a clutch 3-pointer late in a close game, and Barefield taking over in overtime to send the Utes to New York City.
On Penn State’s side, sophomore guard Tony Carr leads the Lions in scoring with 19.7 points per game to go along with 4.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds. Carr is also one half of a dead-eye duo, with Shep Garner — who set the school record for most 3-pointers in an NIT game in the semifinal win —serving as the other. Each shoots over 42.5 percent from deep.
Where the Utes could hold an advantage is in the rebounding category. Rawson and Donnie Tillman combined to pull down 18 boards in the win over Western Kentucky, while Penn State was forced to play without leading rebounder Mike Watkins in the Lions’ win over Mississippi State. Lamar Stevens, a 6-foot-8 forward, picked up the slack with 8 boards, but will have his hands full against Utah.
Where Utah will also have an advantage is in fashion. Krystowiak’s suit game is simply fire. OK, we’re kidding, but also excited to see what he breaks out for the NIT final.
Utah hasn’t been here since 1974 — they lost in that final to Purdue, another Big Ten school — and hasn’t won it since 1947. Penn State, which ended a seven-year NCAA/NIT drought with this year’s appearance, hasn’t had to wait even a decade for such a stage: The Lions made the final and defeated Baylor for the title in 2009. Historical advantage goes to the Utes.
We’ll see which school makes history on Thursday at the world’s most famous arena.