Toledo and Southern Miss feature NCAA Tournament talent playing in the NIT. This may very well turn out to be the best game of the opening week of tournament play. It's the MAC, Conference USA, and it's appointment television.
How They Got Here:
Toledo quickly caught the eyes of the nation. The Rockets rattled off twelve consecutive wins to being the season and entered Lawrence, Kansas on December 30th upset minded against the mighty Jayhawks. In what may have been the most impressive effort of the season for Toledo, the Rockets kept this game in single digits for most of the second half before falling 83-73. At 12-1 Toledo stumbled out of the gate, dropping their first conference matchup at Western Michigan 87-76. From there the Rockets would be in the driver's seat in the MAC West, earning a number one seed after finishing the conference slate at 14-4. Overall Toledo entered the MAC Tournament 26-5 including an unblemished 15-0 record at home for the first time in 47 years. After earning a double bye the Rockets beat Eastern Michigan for the second time in a week, 59-44, before coming up short in the MAC Championship game, 98-77 against Western Michigan. Toledo enters the eighth NIT appearance in school history as a six seed with an RPI of 38.
Southern Miss may be Toledo's top competition since Kansas. The Golden Eagles began the year 6-0 before getting thumped, 69-38, at Louisville. Entering conference play 13-2, USM won its first conference game of the year at North Texas before slipping up against eventual Conference USA champion Tulsa, 75-71, on January 12th. From there the Golden Eagles ran off seven straight league wins. USM also finished the season undefeated at home, and would enter the Conference USA tournament 26-5 overall and 13-3 in league play, good for the four seed. The Golden Eagles first dispatched UTEP 64-56, before losing to fellow NIT invitee Louisiana Tech 88-70. Southern Miss enters the NIT as a three seed with an RPI of 33.
Who To Watch For:
The Rockets like to run. Toledo was the MAC's highest scoring offense this year at over 79 points a game. It's a three headed monster for the Rockets. Julius Brown, Rian Pearson, and Justin Drummond all average better than 14 points a game. Those three finished in the top ten in the conference in scoring, with Brown also leading the MAC in assists per game at 6.1 per contest. Toledo tallied the best assist to turnover ratio in the league this year, and finished at the top in turnover margin. J.D. Weatherspoon is the leader on the glass. Weatherspoon ripped down 6.7 boards a game while also averaging 10.8 points.
The contrast of styles in this one is intriguing. USM does it with balance. The Golden Eagles featured the fifth ranked offense of twelve teams in Conference USA at 72.3 points per game, and the second ranked defense, yielding a scant 62.9 points per contest. Theirs is a very balanced offense, led by Michael Craig at 11 points a game. Southern Miss also gets double figures from Daveon Boardingham and Neil Watson, and 9.7 from Aaron Brooks and Jerrold Brooks, respectively. Craig is also the team's leading rebounder with 7.4 a game. The Rockets better not let this one come down to free throws. Watson shoots better than 93 percent from the charity stripe.
Why the Rockets Will Win:
Toledo's too fast for Southern Miss. The Rockets have three players on their roster capable of running up 25 points against the right competition and Toledo should have no problem running this one up into the 70's or 80's.
Why the Golden Eagles Will Win:
Southern Miss is matching up against a deflated Rockets squad. Toledo entered the conference tournament as the number one seed and was blown out in the championship game. USM, despite the 13-3 record, was just the four seed. The Golden Eagles are balanced, take care of the ball, and have unfinished business after falling a game short of the NIT semifinals a season ago. Southern Miss hasn't lost at home yet this season. It won't happen now.
Toledo plays at Southern Miss Wednesday March 19th at 8:30PM ET.