NIT Championship preview: Men’s basketball vs. Valparaiso

Media Credit: Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW's NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW's NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor
Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW’s NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

What: No. 4 men’s basketball (27–10) vs. No. 1 Valparaiso (30–6), NIT Championship
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, ESPN (TV)
When: Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m.

Three weeks ago, GW blew a 14-point, Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal lead to Saint Joseph’s. Its 2015–2016 campaign, brimming with potential back in November, seemed to end in utter disappointment.

But on the last day of March, the Colonials are still kicking – just one victory away from becoming the winningest men’s basketball team in program history. GW’s unexpected NIT run reaches its climax Thursday night in the Big Apple with a championship battle against top-seeded Valparaiso.

After a hot regular-season start, which included wins over nationally ranked Virginia and Big East champion Seton Hall, the Colonials fizzled out in conference play, finishing 11–7 against A-10 opponents. As an at-large NCAA bid eluded them for a second straight year, the Colonials earned a No. 4 seed in the NIT.

Victories against Hofstra, Florida and an upset at Monmouth propelled GW to a semifinal matchup with a dangerous San Diego State squad. Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Aztecs fell 65–46 while the Colonials executed one of their greatest defensive efforts all year.

The Crusaders entered the NIT at 26–6 after being upset by Green Bay in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals in a 99–92 overtime decision. As a No. 1 seed, Valparaiso has since carved its way to the NIT final with wins over Texas Southern, Florida State, Saint Mary’s and BYU.

While GW, with a skilled veteran roster, arguably did not live up to its fullest potential this season, seniors Joe McDonald, Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino, as well as graduate student Alex Mitola, now have a shot at walking away as champions in their final game donning the buff and blue.

Case for the Colonials:
Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh has been a workhorse for GW all year, leading the team with 16.9 points per game, and averaging 21.3 per game across GW’s four NIT contests. During that span, Cavanaugh has racked up three double-doubles, including a game-high 20-point, 11-rebound performance against the Aztecs.

As a team, GW is averaging an impressive 79.0 points per game in the NIT to the Crusaders’ 74.3. Senior swingman Garino has helped that effort with 15.8 points per game and a 59.6 percent field goal percentage, while fellow fourth-year Kevin Larsen posts a team-best 4.0 assists per game.

While Valparaiso is outrebounding GW on the season, in the NIT, Cavanaugh’s 9.8 boards per game guide a team rebounding effort of 39.8 per game to the Crusaders’ 38.5.

The Colonials will attempt to carry over a determined semifinal defensive effort, in which they held the Aztecs to a season-low 46 points and 28.8 percent shooting clip, and scored 15 points off 11 San Diego State turnovers. Valparaiso committed a season-worst 20 turnovers against BYU.

GW also owns a strong 16–3 record against nonconference opponents, while the Crusaders are 14–4.

Case for the Crusaders:
Valparaiso’s junior forward Alec Peters, a strikingly similar player to Cavanaugh, captains a talented offense with 18.4 points per game, while averaging 22.2 during the NIT. The 6-foot-9-inch big man also paces his team with 8.4 rebounds per game.

Senior guard Keith Carter adds 10.3 points and a team-best 4.4 assists per game.

The NCAA bubble team, part of the first four left out of the Big Dance, boasts an RPI of 49 to GW’s 65. Their deep roster contains nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game and averaged 76 points per game on the year.

In their 72–70 win over BYU, five Crusaders scored in double-figures, including Croatian sophomore forward David Skara, who put up a team-high 15 points off the bench.

Despite giving away a 16-point lead Tuesday, Valparaiso held BYU’s offense, one of the top 10 highest-scoring teams in country, to just 38.2 percent from the field and 7-for-21 from deep.

Senior center Vashil Fernandez helps lead the charge defensively as the the best shot blocker in the country. The 6-foot-10-inch Kingston, Jamaica native leads NCAA Division I with 114 total blocks and 3.26 per game.

The bottom line:
The contest marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs and the first trip to the NIT finals for either squad, so anything goes. Defensive focus will be key for both sides, as neither team plans to go down quietly after getting this far. GW remains the underdog, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will end its season cutting down the nets at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

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