NIT Preview: South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Vanderbilt Commodores
In a game South Dakota State head coach Scott Nagy called "...one of the biggest wins in our program’s history", the Jackrabbits captured their first-ever post season victory in the Division I era, with a 86-76 first round NIT win at top seeded Colorado State, Wednesday night, propelling SDSU into round two and a date with the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, Friday night.
The Summit League regular season co-champs used a 16-4 first half run to jump on top by 12 just prior to the midway point of the half, eventually taking a nine-point cushion into intermission. The Jacks were lethal from behind the 3-point arc in the first 20 minutes, scoring 21 of their 47 first half points from long-range.
As impressive as South Dakota State was shooting the basketball, it was the Jackrabbits' ability to withstand three different Colorado State runs to stay on top for most of the contest. In the first half, the Rams used a 7-0 stretch to close to within five, while in the second half, CSU scored the first six points to make it a three-point game. That latter run sparked a 12-1 SDSU scoring spree to push the lead back to 13. The Rams got it to within five with under eight minutes to play, but that was as close as it got.
I talked with the "Voice of the Jackrabbits", Tyler Merriam, about whether he thought the Jacks surprised Colorado State with their speed, athletic play, and deadly 3-point shooting:
A pair of SDSU juniors had big games in Fort Collins. Guard George Marshall dished out a career-high six assists and tied a career-high with five three-pointers, part of a 24-point performance. Guard Deondre Parks added a career-high eight rebounds to go with 17 points. As a team, SDSU hit 12 three-pointers on the night. Two other players returning next season, junior Jake Bittle and freshman Reed Tellinghuisen, had 25 points between them. That quartet helping to pick up the scoring slack for senior Cody Larson, who continues to draw intense interest from opposing defenses. Merriam says that offensive distribution continues a recent trend for the Jacks:
South Dakota State's (24-10) second round opponent, Vanderbilt (20-13), finished seventh in the SEC this season, but did lead the league with a 47 percent field goal percentage, and was second best in the SEC with seven three-pointers a game. The Commodores have one of the top guards in the league, Wade Baldwin, who averages better than four assists per game.
Vandy gets a lot of its production inside, thanks to 6'10" sophomore center Damian Jones, who is tenth in the SEC in scoring, third in blocked shots, and tops in field goal percentage. Surprisingly though, even with one of the biggest post players in the conference hanging out in the paint, the Commodores are in the bottom half of the SEC in rebounding as a team. That could be one area South Dakota State has an edge. The Jackrabbits were the top rebounding team in the Summit League this season.
Friday's game will be played in what some refer to as the "Fenway Park of College Basketball", Memorial Gymnasium, in Nashville. The 14,326 seat structure was built in 1952, and has a number of quirks that make it stand out in today's era of luxury suites and high def scoreboards. Merriam says he's looking forward to the "Memorial Experience":
A victory Friday night would put the Jackrabbits one win away from a trip to New York City's Madison Square Garden, home of the NIT semifinals and finals. And while the goal of every program is making it to the NCAA Tournament each year, there is the potential of a more extended post season run for a mid-major like South Dakota State in this event rather than the "Big Dance". Just last season, the SDSU women made it all the way to the WNIT semifinals after knocking off the likes of Creighton, Bradley, Minnesota, and Indiana along the way. I asked Merriam about the merits of an extended NIT run versus a one-and-done trip to the NCAA Tournament:
This will be SDSU's first-ever meeting with Vanderbilt. Tipoff in Nashville is 8:30 PM, Friday night. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.
The winner of Friday's game faces off against the winner of Sunday's Stanford - Rhode Island game, next Tuesday or Wednesday.