PULLMAN – At this point, Washington State might be playing for the Pac-12 as much as it is for itself.
All season, pundits both national and regional have taken turns offering examples of nearby mid-major conferences that performed better than the maligned Pac-12.
The West Coast Conference, which sent Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU to the NCAA tournament, is a popular choice. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times speculated that the Big West conference tournament would provide more drama than the Pac-12’s. And there has been no shortage of folks touting the credentials of the Mountain West, which sent four teams to the big dance and watched three of them lose their first game.
Another MWC member, Wyoming, travels to Pullman to play WSU in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational Monday night at 7. And just as the Cougars wanted to prove in a first-round win over San Francisco of the WCC that the Pac-12 is still king on this coast, they’ll try to further silence those who waved the MWC flag for much of this season.
“More teams are in (the NCAAs) in those conferences this year,” said WSU senior guard Marcus Capers. “If you look at those leagues, people would say they’ve got better teams. I wouldn’t feel that way. The Pac-12 – or the Pac-10, as it was last year – is filled with a bunch of pros, so I just feel we’re competing.
“That’s probably just the way to look at it. Us getting two teams into the tournament, Cal not representing the conference so well and (Washington) not even getting in, that’s like two slaps in the face. We’ll just see. I’m rooting for all the Pac-12 teams, and that’s pretty much the mindset going into each of these games.”
Two Pac-12 teams remain alive in the CBI – WSU and Oregon State, which hosts Texas Christian in a quarterfinal tonight. Washington and Oregon will meet in an NIT quarterfinal on Tuesday. Stanford plays an NIT second-round game against Illinois State tonight.
The Cougars (16-16) can’t be sure of whom they’d next face if they beat Wyoming. According to the CBI website, the bracket may be rearranged for the semifinals, likely to help with travel accommodations. If that is indeed a priority, it seems likely WSU would play the winner of tonight’s OSU-TCU game, though the potential location wouldn’t be determined until after Monday’s games are complete.
Monday’s other two quarterfinal games feature Butler at Pennsylvania and Princeton at Pittsburgh. The semifinals will be held Wednesday.
Coach Ken Bone said WSU is just trying to make the best of the rest of its season.
“They’ve been resilient when they’ve lost, they’ve stayed together through the good times and through the tough times,” Bone said of his team, which beat USF 89-75 last week. “And right now, I get the sense that they’re enjoying the end of the season, whenever that might come.”
Wyoming (21-11) beat North Dakota State in a first-round game last week. The Cowboys are led by the 12.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game of forward Leonard Washington, who spent two seasons at USC before transferring.
The Cowboys play almost exclusively man-to-man and rank sixth in the nation in scoring defense at 56.9 points per game.
“Their defense is really good,” Bone said. “Their offense is solid, but there’s no doubt they take a tremendous amount of pride in their defense. Statistically speaking, it’s impressive.”
A WSU spokesman said a confidentiality agreement with the CBI prohibits the school from discussing tournament-related finances, though according to March 7 story in the Virginian-Pilot, second-round hosts must agree to pay a $50,000 fee.
As of Saturday night, WSU had sold 1,043 tickets ($15 for adults, $10 for youth under 18), not including to students (admitted free with sports pass). All non-student seating is general admission.