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Northwestern stands between WSU and New York

Tue., March 22, 2011, 7:33 p.m.

PULLMAN – Only one team stands between Washington State University and the holy grail of the National Invitation Tournament, New York City.

And it wears purple.

But tonight’s NIT quarterfinal opponent, Northwestern, wears a lighter shade than WSU’s archrival. And plays the game in a completely different manner.

“Unfortunately, Northwestern is a very difficult team to prepare for,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said Monday night after the Cougars dispatched Oklahoma State 74-64 to set up the quarterfinal matchup with the Wildcats. “They play a Princeton-style offense, which is hard to guard, especially if you don’t have time to prepare.

“We have our work cut out for us.”

That work got even harder Tuesday afternoon when Bone announced starting center DeAngelo Casto was suspended for the game, citing an unnamed violation of team rules. (See accompanying story.)

As disappointed as 21-12 Washington State was to not make the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season, it might pale in comparison to Northwestern’s angst.

The Wildcats have never earned an NCAA berth, although that prospect looked attainable after eight wins to open the season and a 9-1 nonconference mark.

But leading scorer John Shurna, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who was a teammate of WSU’s Klay Thompson and Casto on the 2009 USA Under-19 team, suffered a high ankle sprain in their final nonconference game.

Since then, with Shurna, averaging 23.3 points a game at the time of the injury, hobbling, the Wildcats went 7-11 in Big Ten play and missed out on the NCAAs again.

But Shurna, who also suffered a concussion and missed more time, is rounding back into form and so are the Wildcats. After beating Minnesota in back-to-back games, the second knocking the Gophers out of the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern took No. 1 ranked Ohio State to overtime, losing 70-61.

A win at home over Milwaukee to open the NIT was followed by last Saturday’s 85-67 road drubbing of top seed Boston College, leading to tonight’s matchup.

Not only has Shurna’s scoring returned – he’s averaging 22.7 in Northwestern’s last three games – but 5-10 senior point guard Michael Thompson has exerted himself down the stretch.

Since struggling against Penn State in a late-season conference game, Thompson has averaged 21.6 points a game, including a career-high 35 in the tournament win over Minnesota.

He also has played no less than 39 minutes in the last eight contests. He’s the key to Northwestern’s Princeton-style offense, which includes multiple back cuts, screens and 3-point shooting from every player – the Wildcats have shot 820 3-pointers this season, making 309 in their 33 games, second most in the country.

In the last eight games, Thompson has hit 32 of 68 3-point shots.

The Cougars will counter with their own Thompson, Klay, who is still eighth in the country, averaging 22.2 points per game. And a team Bone feels is hitting its stride.

“That’s a sign of a good team,” he said Monday. “I’m excited because I feel like we’re playing our best basketball at the very end of the year. Not all teams can say that. But that’s what you want to achieve.

“You work four, five, six months. We (started in) late August and here it is, mid-March and we’re still at it. … I’m pleased these guys have bought in to what we’re trying to do.”

Win one more game and the next thing they’ll buy are tickets to New York.

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