Cougars start NIT journey against Long Beach State
PULLMAN – There are usually three types of teams playing in the National Invitation Tournament, college basketball’s second-string postseason extravaganza.
There are those who are just happy to keep playing. There are those who felt snubbed by the NCAA selection committee and want to show they really belonged in the field of 68.
And there are those who, well, let Dan Monson, coach of Washington State’s NIT first-round opponent tonight at 7 in Beasley Coliseum, tell us.
“Some teams want to be on spring break and they’re going to show people they didn’t belong in the NCAA tournament anyway,” said Monson, who shared those thoughts with his team after they lost to UC Santa Barbara in the finals of the Big West tournament.
So what type of team is second-seeded WSU, which saw its NCAA hopes die last week with an 87-85 loss to rival Washington in the Pac-10 tournament.
“We thought we were an NCAA-tournament team,” said leading scorer Klay Thompson, coming off a 43-point performance in that loss to UW. “We just have the opportunity now to prove to people that we are.”
Thompson and fellow juniors Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto played roles in WSU’s last NIT appearance, a 68-57 loss at Saint Mary’s, ending the 2009 season.
That Cougars team played like one of those teams Monson was talking about, shooting 20 percent from beyond the arc and yielding 27 points to Patty Mills in what then-coach Tony Bennett termed “a less than high-effort performance.”
That’s not going to happen this time, Capers argued.
“I’m not going to guarantee us going to Madison Square Garden, but I’m pretty confident we’re going to be there in a week or two,” Capers said.
To get to New York’s Madison Square Garden, site of the NIT’s semifinals and final, Washington State (19-12) will first have to get past a 22-11 Long Beach State team that rode an 11-game winning streak into last Saturday’s Big West title defeat.
“We’re very balanced,” said Monson, in his fourth year at Long Beach after coaching at Gonzaga and Minnesota. “They’ve been together a long time, four juniors and a senior. The four juniors were my first recruiting class and they’ve progressed through but they just haven’t gotten over the mountain (and into the NCAAs).”
The 49ers start with point guard Casper Ware, whom the Cougars’ players compared favorably to Washington’s Isaiah Thomas.
The Big West player of the year and defensive player of the year – the first to win those Big West awards in the same season – averages 17 points and 4.4 assists.
But seventh-seeded Long Beach isn’t a one-man act. All five 49er starters earned some sort of all-conference recognition and all average double figures in scoring.
The 49ers scramble all over the floor on defense, switching screens and forcing the opponents to deal with pressure.
“I see a pretty athletic bunch,” Capers said of the 49ers. “On defense, they switch on a lot of stuff. If you’re able to switch, with anyone on the court, you’re pretty much for the most part saying no one is more athletic than our team.”
Wings Larry Anderson and Greg Plater, the lone senior starter, supply the outside punch, averaging 14.5 and 11.8 points a game, respectively. And 6-foot-8 forward T.J. Robinson (13.5 points, 10 rebounds) and 6-6 Eugene Phelps (10 points, 6.8 rebounds) handle the inside chores.
WSU will counter with Thompson, who has already set a school single-season scoring record (664 points) while averaging 22.1 points a game, Casto (12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds) and a getting-healthier Reggie Moore, the point guard who played against UW with his sprained right ankle still not near 100 percent.
“Despite the way the season ended, the NIT is a great chance for us to prove we should have been in the NCAA tournament,” Casto said. “We’ve got something to prove. So we just have to go out there and win.”