No. 2 BYU (26-10) vs. No. 1 Valparaiso (29-6)
Tuesday, 5 p.m., MDT
Madison Square Garden
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
NEW YORK CITY — BYU isn’t just happy to be at the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. Three years ago, the Cougars lost to Baylor in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
This time, BYU coach Dave Rose wants more.
“The challenge now is to get past that and get to the finals on Thursday night,” said Rose said. “I think that’s a real focus of these guys. I can hear them talk about that. Hopefully, they feel that urgency to try to advance.”
No. 2 seed BYU takes on top-seeded Valparaiso Tuesday (5 p.m., MDT, ESPN) with the winner facing either San Diego State or George Washington in Thursday’s championship game.
Senior forward Nate Austin is the only Cougar on the roster who played in the NIT three years ago. What does he remember from that experience?
“The biggest thing that stands out to me is that we lost,” he said. “That year we came out and played a little tight. We’ve got to play loose. There’s no pressure. Each team wants to win the championship. We’ve got to play loose and play free.”
“We don’t have anything to lose, everything to gain,” said guard Chase Fischer. “Everyone’s enjoying this moment. We’re going to let it all hang out and see what happens.”
The matchup between the Cougars and Crusaders features contrasting styles. While BYU, which averages 84 points a game, wants to run-and-gun, Valparaiso — which ranks No. 9 in the nation in scoring defense by allowing just 62.2 points per game — wants to slow things down.
“We’re going to kind of make it a grind,” said Crusader forward Alec Peters, who averages 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. “We’ve got to contest their shots the best we can so they’re not scoring in the 80s but the 60s or low 70s. If we can keep them below their average, it’s to our advantage.”
“They have some similarities with Gonzaga because they impose their will and try to get you to do what they want you to do,” Fischer said of Valparaiso. “It will be a good matchup for us. It’s a clash of styles. It’s whoever can get their style going first will have the upper hand.”
Valparaiso (29-6) held West Coast Conference regular-season co-champ Saint Mary’s to 44 points in last Tuesday’s quarterfinal win.
Rose said his team is equipped to deal with Valpo’s deliberate tempo.
“One thing about this team is, we’ve been able to play some slow-paced games. We’re at our best when the games are in the 80s, high 70s. They’re at their best when the games are in the high 50s, low 60s. They held Saint Mary’s to 44 points. That kind of is the back of our minds, maybe the front of our minds, of the challenge we have here.”
BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth, who was suffering from a severe case of the flu in the Cougars’ win over Creighton in the quarterfinals last week, is hoping to be back to full strength for Valparaiso.
Before playing Creighton “I literally didn’t pick up a basketball for three and a half days,” Collinsworth said. “I warmed up for about three minutes and played. I was out of rhythm. I was tired. The game felt like five hours.”
Collinsworth lost 12 pounds as he battled the illness. He started to eat again on Friday and practiced Saturday.
“By (Tuesday), I should be good,” Collinsworth said. “I’m trying to put the weight back on and get my energy level up.”
The last time the Cougars played in the NIT semifinals, in 2013, they fell to a Baylor team coached by Scott Drew, the brother of Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew.
Valpo won the Horizon League but fell in the conference tournament. The Crusaders were shut out of the NCAA tournament, which has given them motivation in the NIT.
“We’re trying to make the (NCAA) Selection Committee regret not putting us in,” Peters said.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that we didn’t into the NCAA tournament,” Drew said. “That was our goal and we were on that path. We got the news we were going to the NIT and very quickly our goals shifted to be able to make it to New York and hopefully win the NIT.”
Valparaiso set program records for wins in a season and home wins (17-1) this season. Forward Vashil Fernandez leads the nation in total blocks (111) and blocks per game (3.26).
How will Fernandez impact BYU’s game plan?
“I try to attack and make the best shot-blocker get in foul trouble. That’s a good strategy for us, to stay aggressive,” Collinsworth said. “The thing about a shot-blocker is, they can get in trouble a lot because they leave the ground a ton. We’ll try to take advantage of that.”
Rose knows that the Crusaders are a talented team and they stand in the way of the chance to win an NIT championship.
“They’ve got great length and good size. They way they protect the rim kind of turns you into a jump-shooting team,” Rose said. “They control the tempo on offense. It’s a real challenge for us. It’s one of those games where we’ll have to work really hard to get transition baskets and get scoring at the free-throw line. We’ll keep pressure on them and play on attack to get the game going the way we want to go.”