The NCAA Tournament isn’t the only tournament that’s down to four teams. The NIT has also whittled its field down to a quartet of teams that are just two games away from winning a championship. The second of two semi-finals Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York will feature the Penn State Nittany Lions taking on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The winner will face the winner of the earlier game between Utah and Western Kentucky.
Both the Nittany Lions and Bulldogs were 4 seeds in the NIT, a safe distance from the NCAA Tournament bubble. As a result, both teams were fully focused on making a deep run in the NIT. Penn State grinder out a double-overtime win against Temple in the first round before knocking off both Notre Dame and Marquette, the top two seeds in that part of the bracket, to advance to the Final Four.
Mississippi State faced a similar path. The Bulldogs survived a back-and-forth game against Nebraska at home before beating both Baylor and Louisville on the road. Against Baylor, the Bulldogs trailed by nine points in the closing minutes, only to storm back and win on a 3-point buzzer beater from Quinndary Weatherspoon. Things were actually a little easier in the quarterfinals. The Cardinals typically make the KFC Yum! Center a fortress, but Mississippi State gained separation before halftime and ultimately cruised to a 23-point road win. Penn State is -2.5 over Mississippi State on Tuesday.
Penn State Nittany Lions
When Penn State has had success this season, it’s been due to their performance on the defensive end. They blew out Ohio State back in February by holding them to just 56 points. They knocked off the Buckeyes again in the Big Ten Tournament by keeping them to 68 points. However, the Nittany Lions can have the occasional scoring outburst, getting one last week when they put up 85 points during their win over Marquette.
When the Nittany Lions are scoring in bunches, it’s usually sophomore Tony Carr doing most of the damage. Carr is scoring 19.7 points per game this year, shooting 44% from the perimeter. Against Marquette, Penn State also benefited from a 30-point performance from Lamar Stevens. The Nittany Lions can also expect a boost Nazeer Bostick, who missed the last two games due to suspension but contributed 12 points in the first-round game against Temple.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs have had a similar M.O. this season. They’re capable of keeping their opponents contained with solid defense. Mississippi State allowed its opponents under 68 points per game this season, and during the NIT, they held both Nebraska and Louisville under 60 points. Of course, they will occasionally light up the scoreboard, needing all 78 points to beat Baylor earlier in this tournament and going off for 93 points during an upset of Texas A&M in February.
When the Bulldogs are going good offensively, Weatherspoon is usually the straw that stirs the drink. But his younger brother, Nick, has also been a catalyst for the team’s best wins this year. The brothers are State’s leading scorers, although big man Aric Holman has come up big during the NIT, averaging 15 points per game after averaging 11 per game during the regular season. Holman could be the X-factor if the Bulldogs are going to reach the NIT championship game.
Fight Between Cats and Dogs
This figures to be a tight game from start to finish with both teams bringing a strong defensive effort. The Bulldogs could have a size advantage inside that could be enough to propel them to victory. However, Penn State has a couple more scorers and is a betting shooting team than Mississippi State. Bet on the Penn State Nittany Lions -2.5 over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Tuesday.