PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars got their wish. Their season will continue in the 32-team National Invitation Tournament.
But their first test, Saint Mary’s, isn’t anyone’s dream opponent. And, as a seventh seed, the Cougars’ road to New York, site of the NIT final four, would include three road games.
The Cougars (17-15) will open the 72nd annual NIT on Tuesday night at 8 in Moraga, Calif., facing second-seeded Saint Mary’s, a school many experts believed would receive a second consecutive NCAA at-large berth.
“A lot of people thought they should have been in the NCAA tournament,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said of the 26-6 Gaels, who average 73.6 points a game. “They’re really good. I know they score a lot and, in their environment, they’ll try to get going.
“We’ll have to be aggressive but we’ll also have to play the way we’ve been successful.”
The Cougars, who lost Thursday 64-53 to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals, will leave Pullman this morning and practice at Saint Mary’s this evening.
“That’s a big deal for our program,” Bennett said of a third consecutive postseason berth to go with back-to-back NCAA appearances. “The NIT is very prestigious. … It’s still a well-respected tournament. We’re excited.”
The Gaels don’t seem to be. They expected to be invited to the NCAAs. They even held an on-campus viewing party Sunday but didn’t hear their name called.
“I was hoping common sense would prevail,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “Common sense is we’re one of the top 34 (at-large) teams.”
“I’m heartbroken,” center Omar Samhan said. “There are teams on there that we’ve beaten. … People don’t want to play here. It’s a mid-major nightmare. It happens every year to somebody.”
The Gaels set a school record in wins and finished second to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. GU was the only team to defeat Saint Mary’s at home, winning 72-70, though the Gaels were without point guard Patty Mills.
“We’ve played some solid basketball on the road,” WSU’s Bennett said of playing at 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion. “It comes down to you have to be able to just play, whether you are home or away, good tournament-style basketball.
“We’ll have to play better than we played against UCLA to advance, or it will be a short trip.”
Saint Mary’s lost four games without Mills, who broke his wrist in the first half of the Gaels’ 69-62 loss at GU. Mills, who leads Saint Mary’s with a 17.8 scoring average, returned for the WCC tournament, but was ineffective. He was 2 of 16 from the floor – 0 of 7 from beyond the arc – in the 83-58 tournament title game loss to Gonzaga.
The Gaels added an extra game with Eastern Washington last Friday, posting an easy 85-65 win. Mills, who played on Australia’s 2008 Olympic team, scored 19 points on 6 of 14 shooting.
Beside Mills, Saint Mary’s has four other Australian players and all played at the Institute of Sport, the same program that produced WSU’s Aron Baynes.
“We had the guys over at the house and Aron said, ‘Oh man, I’m going to play against all the boys,’ ” WSU’s Bennett said.
Saint Mary’s is more than just Mills, however. Forward Diamon Simpson, twice the WCC’s defensive player of the year and a three-time all-conference selection, averaged 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds, despite being just 6-foot-7. Samhan is a presence in the middle, with the 6-11, 265-pound junior averaging 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. Mills, Simpson and Samhan were all members of the All-WCC 10-player first team.
The winner of the WSU/Saint Mary’s game will face the winner of South Carolina/Davidson in the second round. If Washington State were to win, the Cougars would travel.