Cougars welcome Big East challenge
PULLMAN – The opportunity to continue their season was motivation enough for the Washington State Cougars to accept a bid to the College Basketball Invitational.
And after winning three games – the most recent one without leading scorer Brock Motum –WSU is being rewarded for its resiliency.
That is, if you consider a best-of-3 series against a Big East team a reward. But from a prestige standpoint, the Cougars are proud to host Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. tonight in the opening game of the CBI’s championship series.
Why shouldn’t they be? After all, Pitt is about to become just the second current member of the Big East to play a game in Pullman, and the first since that conference was formed in 1979.
DePaul is the only current Big East team that has played a game here, losing 83-69 to WSU on Dec. 11, 1974.
“Pullman’s not a fun place to play,” for a visiting team, senior forward Abe Lodwick said. “It’s not an easy place to get to, either, so I understand why a lot of programs don’t come. It’ll be fun having a team with a big name on their chest coming in. We definitely want to represent ourselves and our school as best we can against them.”
“Playing Pitt here, it’s a big-name school coming in and giving us some publicity over on the East Coast for recruits and stuff,” said freshman guard DaVonte Lacy. “I think it’s a real good opportunity for us and hopefully we take advantage of it.”
The latter may be difficult without Motum, who leads the team in scoring at 18 points per game. Coach Ken Bone said the junior forward has a “very slim chance” to play after spraining his right ankle early in WSU’s 72-55 semifinal win over Oregon State last week.
Motum, who hadn’t practiced all week when he met with reporters on Saturday, was still in a walking boot and on crutches. He said he’s doing everything he can to make it back in time for the game, but that if he can’t go, the goal will be to get healthy in time for Game 2 on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
The Panthers (20-16) were ranked 10th in the AP’s preseason poll, but they lost their first seven conference games with starting point guard Tray Woodall sidelined by an abdominal injury. Pitt, which defeated Butler in the semifinals, is 12th in the nation in rebounding margin, but hasn’t played particularly well in any other area.
Bone described them as “an Arizona team that rebounds like Washington.” Pitt is led in scoring by senior guard Ashton Gibbs, who averages 15.5 points per game.
Keeping the Panthers off the glass will be one of WSU’s top priorities. But the Cougars (18-16) also need offensive contributions similar to what they received from players like Lodwick last week if Motum can’t play.
Lodwick set career highs with 23 points and 12 rebounds in Motum’s absence against OSU, making 5 of 8 from 3-point range while playing 35 minutes. That performance came two days after he set a career high against Wyoming with 16 points.
“I think he’s just extremely relaxed,” Bone said. “He’s having fun, going out and hooping and not worrying about anything.”
“My confidence has been able to grow a little bit over the first part of this tournament, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Lodwick said.
Win or lose, the fun will continue on Wednesday with a 4 p.m. game at Pitt. A third game, if necessary, would be played in Pittsburgh on Friday.
For now, WSU is simply relishing the opportunity to run with one of college basketball’s big boys. But a CBI championship would make things even more worthwhile.
“It would mean a lot,” Bone said. “It’s not like hanging an NCAA banner, but we’ve won three more games, we have at least two more to go, and we are peaking at the right time of the year.”