No. 2 Utah (22-11) vs. No. 4 Western Kentucky (27-10)
Tuesday, 5 p.m. MDT
Madison Square Garden (19,812)
New York City, New York
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
For Western Kentucky A berth in the NIT championship game — The Hilltoppers have made the NIT 14 times in their history but have never taken home the title. Western Kentucky has made only one appearance in the championship game, in 1942. They fell short in that contest, losing to West Virginia 47-45. A victory over Utah would give them their first championship-game berth in 76 years.
For Utah A berth in the NIT championship game — The Utes have also participated in the NIT 14 times in program history, but, unlike the Hilltoppers, they have taken home the grand prize. That successful tournament came in 1947, when the Utes defeated Kentucky 49-45. Utah has advanced to the NIT final one additional time, in 1974, where it fell to Purdue.
For Western Kentucky The Hilltoppers lost to the Marshall Thundering Herd 67-66 in the Conference USA championship, losing out on an NCAA Tournament berth. Since then, Western Kentucky has been on fire, handling Boston College 79-62 in the opening round of the NIT and then felling USC and Oklahoma State in back-to-back games.
For Utah The Utes are on what is arguably their best run of the season, with back-to-back-to-back wins over UC Davis, LSU and Saint Mary’s. The victories over LSU and Saint Mary’s were particularly impressive, with the Utes obliterating the Tigers 95-71 before taking down the Gaels in overtime, 67-58.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sedrick Barefield, Utah guard ... Quietly, perhaps overshadowed by teammates Justin Bibbins and David Collette, Barefield has been excellent for the Utes, averaging 11.6 points per game. Barefield has been especially effective in the NIT. He scored a team-high 17 points in the Utes' runaway victory over the LSU Tigers in the second round, and topped the feat with a team-best 19 points in the overtime win over the Gaels.
Justin Johnson, Western Kentucky forward ... The senior has been a vital piece of the Hilltoppers his entire career, not to mention this season. Western Kentucky’s leading scorer, at 15.4 points per game, Johnson is also the team’s leading rebounder, at 9.4 boards a game. Johnson led Conference USA in rebounding this season and is sixth among active NCAA players for career rebounds (fifth for double-doubles).
“(Western Kentucky’s) a team that’s clicking on all cylinders right now, so we’re going to have our hands full with really good players at each position. (We’re) looking forward to the opportunity.” — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak
“We've got to contain (Utah’s) guards — we need to get back in transition. Because of their size advantage, we're going to have to do a good job of limiting their second-chance points. They're a very good, very well-coached team, and they've got some big wins this season to prove it. We'll have to play very well to win this basketball game." — Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury