Can a NIT Championship Redeem BYU’s Season?

A NIT Championship would be big for senior Kyle Collinsworth (above) and the BYU Cougars after missing out on the big dance. However, they will have to get by a good Valparaiso team in the NIT Semis first.

It has been a bit of a disappointing season for Dave Rose and the BYU Cougars, who failed to make the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 2007 (the other time they missed was in 2013). Considering they had all-around Swiss Army knife Kyle Collinsworth returning, many figured the Cougars would at least challenge Gonzaga and St. Mary’s for the WCC crown or at least an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Unfortunately, though the Cougars posted a respectable 22-9 record and 13-5 mark in WCC play in the regular season, their campaign was marred by some head-scratching losses.

On November 16th, their second game of the year, they lost 66-65 to a Long Beach State team that ranked 90th overall according to Ken Pom. However, that was only the tip of the iceberg as the Cougars also lost to Portland (ranked 212th according to Ken Pom) 84-81 and Pepperdine (139th) 71-65 on the road and Pacific (233rd) 77-72 at HOME (safe to say, the loss to the Tigers, who were playing with an interim coach, pretty much sealed the deal when it came to their candidacy as an at-large selection). The Cougars had some good wins on their resume, including beating Gonzaga in Spokane and St. Mary’s in Provo, and over New Mexico and Northern Iowa (a tournament team) on a neutral court. But the bad losses just haunted them throughout the year, and that was a key reason why they weren’t even hoping for an at-large spot on Selection Sunday.

Luckily for Cougar fans though, BYU did not take participation in the secondary-tournament as a slap in the face or a measly consolation prize. Unlike St. Mary’s, who was throttled against Valpo on the road in the third round of the NIT, the Cougars made the Final Four of the NIT at Madison Square Garden, where they will face the same team that easily dispatched the Gaels a week earlier. Let’s take a look at the Cougars’ prospects and what a NIT championship would mean to BYU going forward.

NIT Championship Outlook

BYU has gotten some good wins in a NIT tournament that was loaded with worthy opponents who certainly deserved at-large consideration. They easily beat UAB, who was the regular season Conference USA champion (and whose coach is now the head man at Stanford) 97-79 in the first round of the tournament, and won an 80-77 nail biter against a much improved Virginia Tech team that will look to be a dark horse next year in the ACC under Buzz Williams, the former Marquette coach who will begin his third season next year. But the biggest win was over a Creighton team that looked a whole lot better statistically (ranked 40th in Ken Pom) than their record (20-15). In an up-tempo shootout (76 possessions) in Provo, the Cougars outscored the Jays 88-82 to clinch a Final Four spot in Manhattan.

Now, the Cougars will go against a Crusaders team more known for their defense than offense, something that the Cougars really didn’t see so far in the early round of the NIT (all the teams had higher adjusted offensive ratings than defensive ones). Valpo’s 92.7 points per 100 possession adjusted defensive rating was 8th best in the nation, and was key in big wins for them this year over the Gaels, Oregon State and Iona (the last two being NCAA Tournament teams). Unlike the Cougars, who like to push the tempo and get off quick shots as evidenced by their 74.2 adjusted tempo (11th fastest in the nation) and 14.5 second average possession length (7th fastest in the nation), the Crusaders prefer a slower, more half-court-oriented approach. Head Coach Bryce Drew’s (yes, this same Bryce Drew) squad posted a tempo of 67.2 (263rd fastest in the nation) and had an APL of 17.6 (206th fastest). That being said, just because they are slower in their approach doesn’t mean the Crusaders are a “throw it in the paint” kind of team. Instead, they are a very perimeter-oriented squad that can torch teams from beyond the arc. 32.4 percent of their points come from 3-point land and they play a pretty deep bench, as their 36.1 bench minutes percentage is 71st highest in the nation. Add that with an experienced squad (they are the 31st most experienced team in the nation) and some key players in combo forward Alec Peters (his 129.5 offensive rating was 13th best in the nation) and senior guard Keith Carter (his 29.3 assist rate was 98th highest in the nation) and the Cougars will certainly have their hands full tonight. The matchup between Peters and Collinsworth will be an interesting one to follow as whoever has the better night could be crucial in whether or not their team will garner a berth in the NIT Championship game.

If the Cougars do get by Valpo, a potential old-school MWC matchup with San Diego State is a possibility, as the Aztecs face George Washington after the BYU-Valpo tilt. Much like the Crusaders, Steve Fisher’s squad relies on defense, as they ranked 2nd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.9). Without a doubt, whether it’s tonight or in the Championship, BYU will have to make their shots and pick it up on the defensive end against two very good defensive squads. The Cougars like their fast pace-style, as they have only played in 5 games this year where the possession mark was under 70. In order for the Cougars to maintain that pace, they are going to need to own the glass and generate turnovers on the defensive end, since Valpo (and maybe San Diego State) won’t exactly feed into BYU’s “early shot” tendencies.

What a NIT Championship Will Mean

The NIT isn’t the NCAA Tournament, make no mistake about that. However, while BYU’s chances seemed shot after their loss to Pacific, Valpo and San Diego State were two teams who had legitimate beefs with the NCAA Selection committee. Valpo beat Oregon State and was ranked 31st in the nation (almost 30 spot higher than the Beavers) according to Ken Pom. San Diego State was the best MWC team by far and was ranked 32nd in Ken Pom Ratings. If BYU can beat both of those teams on a neutral court, not only will it be a satisfying end for Rose’s squad and make up for a disappointing campaign in the regular season, but it would be a nice way for Collinsworth to end his Cougar career after missing out in the Big Dance his senior season.

Of course, this won’t be easy. As stated before, Valpo beat St. Mary’s by 16 and held them to 0.75 PPP, one of their lowest totals of the season. The Crusaders can get after it defensively, and if the Cougars struggle to hit shots, that will make things very difficult at MSG. Collinsworth is the key sure, but the Cougars will need perimeter players such as Vandy transfer Chase Fischer and freshman Nick Emery to step it up offensively and defensively if they want to have a shot at winning this thing.

Yes, the WCC only gained 1 NCAA Tournament berth this year. But a Sweet 16 appearance and a NIT Championship? Well, that would be something to build on for next year and not just for Rose’s program (he will still have returners in Emery, Kyle Davis, Corbin Kaufusi, and Zac Seljaas next season, meaning they have a good shot to compete for a WCC title next year), but the WCC as a whole.

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