Minutemen face Ohio State in NIT Championship at MSG

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Click here to listen to Eli Rosenswaike and Michael King preview the NIT Championship game between UMass and Ohio State

Trailing by 22 points with 14 minutes remaining against Syracuse: extremely difficult to come back from, but possible.

Double-digit deficits against both Akron and Florida: seemingly no big deal.

Completing four consecutive and improbable late-game comebacks: almost inconceivable.

But that’s been the norm for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team during its first-ever run to the National Invitation Tournament Championship Game. The Minutemen will try to complete their improbable journey to an NIT title tonight against Ohio State at Madison Square Garden in New York. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.

UMass (25-10) overcame three straight double-digit deficits to reach the final; trailing by 22 points against the Orange, 12 against the Zips and by 10 versus the two-time defending NCAA Champion Gators.

The Minutemen have their work cut out for them if they hope to pull off the same second-half magic against Ohio State (23-13), as the Buckeyes are 17-3 this season when leading at the half and a perfect 21-0 when up with five minutes remaining.

“That is not something that you want to keep relying on,” UMass coach Travis Ford said at Wednesday’s pre-game press conference at MSG, referencing the recent comebacks. “These guys know that if that happens they can come back, but that is not a situation you want to put yourself into.

“I think it is important we get off to a better start because of Ohio State’s aggressive nature,” he added. “The only thing you can control is how hard you play.”

Ohio State’s trip to the finals of the NIT hasn’t had the same drama as UMass’s, but that’s fine with the Buckeyes. Led by star senior point guard Jamar Butler and freshman center Kosta Koufos, they have beaten all four teams in their path (UNC Asheville, California, Dayton and Mississippi State) by at least 11 points.

“They are a team that is big and physical at every spot,” Ford said about Ohio State. “They are a team that really relies on their physical makeup and they play really hard. It should be an exciting game. Obviously Ohio State has a lot of tradition, a great basketball program and obviously coach [Thad] Matta is a great coach.”

The Buckeyes have some history in the NIT, with this season’s appearance their eighth in school history. This will mark their third trip to the championship game. They claimed the 1986 title over Wyoming.

Last year the Buckeyes made it all the way to the NCAA Championship game, eventually losing to the Gators. But this year’s squad is vastly different to last season’s, with freshmen superstars Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook all leaving early for the NBA. The Buckeyes also lost starters Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris to graduation.

With the exception of Butler running the point, the entire starting lineup is new for Matta. But the talent is there. Butler was named to the Big Ten First Team after the regular season by the media and recently set a school-record with 101 made 3-pointers this season. His 212 assists this year is second to only Conley’s 238 in 2007 in the school record books.

But the biggest name on the Buckeyes may be Koufos. The 7-foot, 19-year-old freshman is on the radar screens of NBA scouts already. ESPN’s Chad Ford has him ranked No. 21 on his Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects list, citing his strength down low, his inside-outside skills and strong passing, footwork and inside moves.

His play in the NIT thus far has shown all of those things. Koufos is shooting a spectacular 70 percent from the floor (32-of-46) in the four games, averaging over 17 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

Sophomore guard David Lighty (11.5 points per game) and senior forward Othello Hunter (10.3 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) are also playing well for Ohio State during the NIT.

The balanced scoring for Ohio State is something that Matta also sees in Ford’s team.

“Obviously [they are] a very aggressive, talented basketball team. You can look at their stat sheet and they have five guys that can get 30 points in a game,” Matta said at Wednesday’s press conference. They have a great blend of drivers and shooters, and they finish around the basket.

“They are going to get up and really try to force your hand,” he added. “They use their speed and quickness to their advantage with their full court defensive stuff.”

To help counteract UMass’s up-tempo offense, the Buckeyes will play a grind-it-out style of play, designated to keep scores low and throw teams like UMass out of rhythm offensively. How well UMass handles Ohio State’s zone defense will be crucial for the Minutemen.

“Ohio State is trying to force turnovers, force shots and make you uncomfortable in their zone,” Ford said. “We like to get the ball up and down the court and have fun playing basketball. They are going to press on almost every possession. They are not a typical zone team. They are very aggressive.”

UMass junior point guard Chris Lowe is mindful of the tasks at hand against the zone defense, but thinks the outcome of the game will be decided elsewhere.

“We have played a lot of aggressive teams, we just need to play our style,” Lowe said. “It is going to come to who has the will to come out and get the victory.”

That victory would mean a lot to senior captains and New York natives Gary Forbes and Dante Milligan.

“I feel like Dante and I want to leave this school in better shape than we found it,” Forbes said. “This school has never played for a championship. It would mean a lot to us especially winning it at Madison Square Garden.”

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]