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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 11:56 PM

Whenever the Big Ten and the Pac 12 get together, fans are usually in for a good show. Thursday Night’s Minnesota/Stanford game for the championship of the NIT may not be the Rose Bowl, or even a dream March Madness meeting between historical conference powers. But, it DOES feature two teams who have peaked at the right time…and two teams who want to end their 2012 campaign on a high note.

Minnesota has truly impressed in this event, despite being cursed with a #6 seed in their quadrant of the brackets. They had to win three games on the road…and THEN beat Washington (a #1 seed) in the semifinals Tuesday Night in Madison Square Garden. Our trained skepticism had us leery of the Big Ten entering the postseason. Given a very impressive run by the conference in the Big Dance, and Minnesota’s survival this far in the NIT…we will happily endorse the Big Ten as the best conference in basketball this season.

Stanford had an easier path. They were a #3 seed, but played only home games in the first three rounds because upsets took out the two teams sitting in front of them. Then, they drew UMASS in the semifinals, which was a much softer challenge than what Minnesota had to deal with. Still, Stanford is performing very well in the stats that matter most. And, we’re talking about a team that was expected to contend for the Pac 12 title when the season was just getting under way. Maybe NOW the team has finally reached the high level of performance everyone was expecting back then.

We know you want to pick the winner. Let’s run our standard preview numbers to see how the game is likely to play out. If this is your first visit to the NOTEBOOK, we’re looking this year at the computer ratings compiled by Jeff Sagarin (USA Today) and Ken Pomeroy; as well as the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings as tabulated by Pomeroy (scoring adjusted for pace and caliber of opponent).

 

MINNESOTA VS. STANFORD

Minnesota: 33 in Sagarin, 35 in Pomeroy, 51 on offense, 44 on defense

Stanford: 38 in Sagarin, 38 in Pomeroy, 84 on offense, 24 on defense

Vegas Line: Pick-em, total of 131

 

Interesting that Minnesota grades out as the better team even though they were the inferior seed. How could that happen? A few reasons:

*Minnesota gets credit in the computers for playing in a much better conference. The teams had comparable seasons, but Minnesota was running with the bulls in Pamplona while Stanford was surfing on the West coast.

*Minnesota had a more impressive run through this event because of all the road games. Both teams have been rising up the computer ladders because they keep winning. Minnesota gets more of a late boost because the computer is comparing road games for one team to home games for the other.

*Minnesota has been getting computer respect all season. They just weren’t able to post a winning record in a great conference.

In terms of the offense/defense breakdowns, it’s Stanford that gets our attention. You regulars know we place a lot of weight on defense. The Cardinal grades out as a top 25 defense this season, and they were sure stingy Tuesday Night in the semifinals against UMASS as you’ll see in a moment when we run the boxscore numbers.

Numerically, you can make a case for either team at the current Vegas number. Let’s see if there’s any meaningful evidence from the semifinal boxscores…

 

STANFORD 74, MASSACHUSETTS 64

Field Goal Pct: Massachusetts 34%, Stanford 37%

Three-Pointers: Massachusetts 5/22, Stanford 5/16

Free Throws: Massachusetts 13/22, Stanford 21/30

Rebounds: Massachusetts 35, Stanford 45

Turnovers: Massachusetts 16, Stanford 17

Phantom Score: Massachusetts 71, Stanford 83

Vegas Line: Stanford by 2.5, total of 149.5

Something about Madison Square Garden is just BLINDING shooters in recent weeks. Nobody could make anything in the Big East tournament a few weeks ago. The Knicks and Bucks played a game Monday Night were you could swear everyone was wearing blindfolds when they launched their jumpers. Here, the teams were a combined 10 of 38 on three-pointers and neither team could crack 40% from the field overall. Both teams missed nine free throws too!

Phantom Score confirms the blowout, meaning this was a clean and comfortable win for the Cardinal. If you’re new, Phantom Score is a secondary score we developed many years ago that focuses on the inside game. It’s simply two-point scoring plus rebounding. Stanford impressed in this stat once again thanks to their rebounding prowess and internal defense. Not also that Phantom Score would have gone Over the Vegas total, while the actual scoreboard stayed Under by double digits because of all the poor shooting.

 

MINNESOTA 68, WASHINGTON 67 (in overtime)

Field Goal Pct: Minnesota 44%, Washington 37%

Three-Pointers: Minnesota 3/13, Washington 5/16

Free Throws: Minnesota 13/20, Washington 10/16

Rebounds: Minnesota 34, Washington 37

Turnovers: Minnesota 19, Washington 14

Phantom Score: Minnesota 80, Washington 79

Vegas Line: Washington by 1, total of 143

Only Minnesota could crack 40% on the night amongst the Final Four, and that happened because they focused on the inside game. The Gophers only tried 13 treys on the night. Washington failed to hit a third of their treys and 40% of their shots overall. The downside of Minnesota’s efforts to attack the basket came in the turnover department. It’s tough to win when you lose the ball 19 times! They did pick up a few extra free throws…and every point matters in a neutral site overtime game.

This sets up a very clear framework for the championship showdown Thursday:

*Minnesota is going to attack the basket and try to win inside the arc.

*Stanford is going to defend with a passion, as their strength is lined up to stop Minnesota’s attack.

Whoever gets the better of THAT battle is going to win and cover in a game with this tight a spread. We can tell you that we’ll have to think about the Under giving the defenses on the floor and the playoff style game we’re likely to see. Minnesota/Washington stayed Under even with overtime…and the earlier game missed the Vegas mark by double digits. Will the total qualify as a service play? Who will we like on the team side?

Well, you know JIM HURLEY can’t post his official plays here in the NOTEBOOK. As we write this, he’s still waiting for late word from his on-site sources in New York who are on top of every development. By the time you read this preview, he may have already posted the Thursday package. Make a few clicks and have your credit card handy!

Oh, the NIT Championship game isn’t the only highlight of the Thursday card. TNT has a great doubleheader in the NBA. Dallas visits Miami in Game One in a rematch of last year’s shocking league Finals. In the nightcap, it’s current Western favorite Oklahoma City visiting the Los Angeles Lakers who have been the most talked about team in the league the past few days. Who’s going to get benched Thursday Night?!

It’s easy to go day-by-day with us right here at the website. If you’d like to get the most bang for your buck, sign up for longer term service by calling 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about baseball when you call. The regular season has already officially started with Seattle and Oakland over in Japan. Everyone else is now just a few days away from hearing “Play Ball!” in games that matter.

Back with you tomorrow for more NBA notes. Our official NCAA Final Four stat previews will run in the Saturday NOTEBOOK. Sunday we’ll preview Chicago/Oklahoma City in the NBA in a game some are predicting will be a championship series preview. Monday is championship night in the Big Dance.

Be sure you’re with us EVERY DAY so you know what’s REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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