Stanford Meets Minnesota In NIT Championship

By: Willie Bee | Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A pair of teams that failed to make the Big Dance will instead tango for NIT Championship honors when the Minnesota Golden Gophers meet the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday night.

Tip-off from Madison Square Garden will be at 7:00 p.m. (ET) with ESPN providing the broadcast.  The Don Best odds screen shows the contest currently to be a pick 'em with the total at 131½ after beginning a point lower.

Both teams fell in the second round of their conference tournaments before winning four straight to reach this point.  Minnesota punched its ticket to the NIT Final with a 68-67 overtime win vs. Washington on Tuesday night.  That contest opened with the Huskies a slight favorite before closing with even odds.

The Golden Gophers were seeded sixth in the event and won three games on the road as underdogs to get to New York City, taking down La Salle, Miami (FL) and Middle Tennessee State along the way.  The triumph over Washington in the semifinals marked the eighth consecutive cover for the Gophers who are now 19-14-1 against the spread following a late-season surge.

The Cardinal started hot, went cold and then closed strong for a 74-64 victory over Massachusetts in their Tuesday semifinal.  Stanford trailed 50-49 with eight minutes to go before scoring a 25-14 advantage the rest of the way, the final 11 points coming at the free-throw line.  Johnny Dawkins' gang overcame 17 turnovers with 10 steals and six assists to cover the 2½-point spread.

Third-seeded Stanford began the NIT with three wins at home against Cleveland State, Illinois State and Nevada before the decision over UMass on Tuesday. The 92-88 overtime victory vs. Illinois State as 8½-point favorites was the lone contest the Cardinal failed to cover.

Minnesota's impressive 6-1 run during March (7-0 ATS) came out of the blue after Tubby Smith's gang struggled with just one February win in eight tries.  Rodney Williams has been a huge reason for the turnaround, with the junior forward averaging 18.9 PPG the last seven games and 21 PPG during NIT play.  Freshman Andre Hollins has been the unsung hero, scoring 20 in Tuesday's OT win and averaging 17.8 PPG in the NIT compared to 7.3 PPG for the season.

Stanford has also gone 6-1 during March (5-2 ATS), with Aaron Bright's scoring off the bench a key factor.  The little sophomore sparkplug is averaging more than 17 PPG in the four NIT games and made good on 10-of-14 shots from beyond the arc.  The Cardinal are shooting 46 percent in the tourney as a team from 3-point range (29-of-63).

A couple of Pac-12 teams shared the role of common opponents this campaign for the Cardinal and Golden Gophers. Minnesota just toppled Washington, with Stanford falling to the Huskies in their only regular season meeting, 76-63 as a 4-point road 'dog.  The Gophers hosted USC last December and emerged with a 55-40 victory while laying eight.  The Cardinal beat the Trojans twice, 51-43 and 59-47, each time covering a spread of 6-7 points.

There is some early movement on the spread to Stanford -1 at some shops.  That early boost to the total, albeit a modest single point will be interesting to watch after both semifinals on Tuesday saw jumps in their scoreboard numbers.  The Minnesota-Washington clash opened at 140½ before closing at 144½-145.  There was a 2-point increase in the Cardinal-Minutemen contest after it started at 147½; the final proved to be a winner for 'under' bettors to snap a 6-game Stanford streak to the 'over.'

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