The Clemson Tigers (23-12, 10-8 ACC) will travel to Madison Square Garden Tuesday night to take on the Southern Methodist Mustangs (29-6, 12-6 AAC) in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament. Clemson’s trip to New York is the cherry on top of a surprisingly strong season that none of the experts saw coming. The Tigers were predicted to finish 14th out of the 15 ACC teams this season but instead finished 6th, narrowly missing an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament and received a three seed in the NIT. Clemson has taken full advantage of the opportunity, winning its first three games of the tournament, beating several good teams in Georgia State, Illinois and Belmont. The Tigers will now face off against top seeded SMU.
Southern Methodist, a team that won an impressive 12 games in the fairly competitive American Athletic Conference, was a contender to receive an NCAA Tournament bid that likely should have been in the field of 68. Though their overall schedule is weak, the Mustangs defeated both Cincinnati and Memphis, both of which were tournament teams. Most impressively, they beat Connecticut twice, a team that will play in the Final Four this weekend. SMU should have been an NCAA Tournament team and they are clearly out to prove their worth as they have had few problems advancing to the semis in New York.
SMU is an offensively efficient team that receives consistent scoring from about half a dozen players. They are led by Nic Moore, a 5’11″ guard, and Markus Kennedy, a 6’9″ forward, who each average about 13 and 12 points respectively. The Mustangs also shoot the ball very well, averaging almost 49% shooting for the season, the 16th best team in that category in the nation. They also share the ball well, averaging an impressive 15+ assists a game. SMU plays strong defense as well, allowing only 62.3 points per game and averaging 7.5 steals. Overall, the Mustangs are a daunting opponent that will give Clemson its toughest test of the NIT thus far.
If Clemson is to advance to the finals, they will need to continue their offensive consistency of late. Since the NIT began, the Tigers’ offense has flowed and produced much more efficiently than it has all season. Instead of relying almost solely on KJ McDaniels to score, they have received significant contributions from Demarcus Harrison, Jordan Roper, Rod Hall and Landry Nnoko. Harrison especially has shown growth over the last few tournament games and the final regular season games this season, and it seems as though he is developing into a much needed offensive force on which the Tigers can build going into next season. For Clemson to win tonight they will need to share the ball on offensive and be aggressive on defense. McDaniels will not be able to single-handedly lead the Tigers over a team as good as SMU. If the Clemson supporting cast can come through, they should be able to give the Mustangs a run for their money.