NEW YORK – If there is one thing the National Invitation Tournament offers its semifinal participants, it is the New York experience.
The teams are staying in Times Square. They had a dinner in the Central Park boathouse Monday night. And the games are at Madison Square Garden, home to Willis Reed’s Lazarus act in the 1970s and Carmelo Anthony’s power play in this decade.
Heck, coming back from its practice Monday at Columbia University, Washington State stopped at Rucker Park, the mecca of street basketball.
“Those kids can play,” Marcus Capers said Monday at the NIT’s press function held at the team hotel.
He was referring to the boys and girls at Rucker, but that sentiment goes for tonight’s opponent, Wichita State (27-8), as well.
The Shockers, who finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference, play a physical, tough brand of basketball for coach Gregg Marshall.
“Our coach is a tough coach and it’s all about defensive rebounding,” said J.T. Durley, a 6-foot-8, 236-pound fifth-year senior, who leads the Shockers in scoring (11.4 points a game) and is second in rebounding (5.1 a game).
“They’re a great rebounding team,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “You watch video and it’s impressive to see. Most anybody who goes toward the glass, they’re screening them out.
“They put a body on them and they put a body on them hard. And early in the game, they do an outstanding job of almost like sending a message, ‘No, you’re not coming in here.’”
But as Bone was quick to point out, not getting offensive rebounds will not kill the Cougars (22-12). If Wichita gets too many, however, watch out.
“An even bigger challenge, and probably more important, is to keep them off the offensive glass,” Bone said.
After watching video of the Shockers, Capers is also worried about taking care of the ball.
“We need to look at our turnovers, for the most part,” the junior guard said. “The reason I say that is, if we have a pass that’s too good, it’s going to create a dunk.
“Coaches sometimes say a dunk is just two points, but when the crowd gets into it, we’re in Madison Square Garden, so I feel like you’ve got to come with your best because they’ve seen a lot of great basketball.”
Marshall believes that’s what you’ll see out of the Cougars.
“They’re not a one-trick pony,” he said, referring to Klay Thompson and his 22 points per game.
Marshall took pains to single out DeAngelo Casto in the middle and Faisal Aden coming off the bench as threats.
Thompson, who is averaging 21 points in the tournament, thinks the Cougars have played their best basketball since the Feb. 19 loss at Arizona State. Since that defeat, WSU is 5-2, but has been in every game.
“We didn’t want our season to end like it did last year,” Thompson said. “We’ve done a good job of fighting in every game since then.”
No matter what, WSU’s season will end at Madison Square Garden, a place Bone has wanted to visit since the 1970s.
“The Knicks were my favorite team at that time,” Bone said of the Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere Knicks. “In 1970, the Sonics were in town, but they weren’t winning many ballgames. I loved the Knicks.
“Even since, there have been so many great college games at Madison Square Garden. There is just so much history there.”