PULLMAN – The National Invitation Tournament may not be the prom, but it’s somewhat akin to homecoming. Especially for Washington State and its first-round opponent Wednesday night.
The Cougars (19-12), who saw their NCAA hopes dashed by a 89-87 loss to Washington in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, found out Sunday they’ll be playing in their fifth postseason NIT.
But that was just the start of the news. The Cougars were awarded a No. 2 seed and will host seventh-seeded Long Beach State at Friel Court in a game televised nationally on ESPNU.
“I think it’s great” being at home, coach Ken Bone said. “It’s nice to be able to play on our home court. Unfortunately our students will not be here, but I would still rather be at home than on the road.”
The last time the Cougars appeared in the NIT, they traveled to Saint Mary’s in 2009 and lost 68-57 in Tony Bennett’s last game at WSU.
Washington State is on spring break, so Pullman is nearly devoid of students, but Bone doesn’t feel that should matter much.
“(Our players) know very well there’s not many kids in Pullman right now,” he said. “We’re just going to have to get out there and play hard in front of maybe a sparse crowd, but that’s the way it goes.”
Bone professed to know little about the Big West Conference-champion 49ers (22-12), saying the first time he saw them play this year was Saturday night in the tournament championship game, which Long Beach lost 64-56 to UC Santa Barbara.
“I know they’re very athletic and extremely well-coached,” Bone said. “And I know they’re good.”
Though the 49ers aren’t familiar to Bone, their coach is. He’s also familiar to WSU fans.
Dan Monson was a longtime Gonzaga assistant who took over as head coach of the Bulldogs in 1997 and led them to the NCAA Elite Eight in the 1998-99 season.
He left GU for Minnesota, where he led the Gophers to the postseason five times before being resigning after a 2-5 start in 2006. He returned to coaching the next year at Long Beach, leading the 49ers to the Big West title this season, their first since 2007. He was named the conference’s coach of the year.
He’s also familiar with Washington State.
“I know a lot, because I’m a fan of theirs,” said Monson, whose mom attended WSU and has other relatives with deep Cougar ties. “Those games you named – Kansas State, Gonzaga, their games in Hawaii – I watched every one of them as a fan.
“For drawing a team in the NIT, I think I’ve seen them probably as much as any team we could want to.”
The 49ers are led by Big West player of the year Casper Ware, a 5-foot-10 point guard who averaged 16.9 points and 4.7 assists per game.
Wing Larry Anderson, another All-Big West first-team selection, missed six games due to injury and the 49ers were 2-4 without him. The 6-5 junior averaged 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds.
The 49ers played two Pac-10 teams early in the year, losing at Washington 102-75 and at Arizona State 72-55.
“We know it’s moving up in the weight classification a little bit,” Monson said.
Bone said he’s not worried the Cougars would suffer a letdown after not making an NCAA tournament that seemed in their grasp with a win over Washington.
“If we had won a couple more games and we were truly right on the bubble” he would be concerned, Bone said. But, “I think we pretty much knew, once we lost to Washington, that our chances of getting in the NCAA tournament were slim and none.”
Monson’s team, for the second consecutive year, was within just a few minutes of being invited to the prom. So he’s on the other side.
“They are as devastated of a team as I’ve had to deal with right now,” he said. “It was very emotional to deal with after the game, they’re still not ready to move on.”
But Monson feels they will be by Wednesday.
“We need to go in and represent ourselves against Washington State,” he said.