‘We’ve been here before’: Washington State hosts Eastern Washington, looking to make another deep run in the NIT
March 13, 2023 Updated Mon., March 13, 2023 at 9:42 p.m.
PULLMAN – Nonconference foes from the Inland Northwest meet again – with extra motivation.
The Washington State Cougars are looking to make a deep run in the NIT for the second consecutive season. The Eastern Washington Eagles hope to finish the year on a high note after suffering a stunning loss in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
Fourth-seeded WSU (17-16) hosts EWU (22-10) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Beasley Coliseum for a first-round NIT matchup. The game will air on ESPNU.
WSU raced to an 82-56 victory over Eastern on Nov. 21 in Spokane. The Cougars made 15 of 30 from 3-point range and held the Eagles to 31.1% from the field.
Since then, both teams have “improved drastically,” EWU coach David Riley said.
The Cougars won seven consecutive games – tying a program record for longest Pac-12 winning streak – before bowing out of the conference tournament Thursday with a quarterfinal loss to Oregon.
“We were playing so well late, winning seven of our last eight, so hopefully we’ll have some momentum,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Getting to play a team in our region again, a program that’s had a lot of success recently … it should be a fun game.
“They are much better (than the first meeting), obviously, and had a great run through their league,” Smith added of EWU. “I could see it coming a little bit. I was just glad we caught them when we did.”
The Eagles boasted the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 games before dropping their last three. EWU fell 81-80 to Northern Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tourney. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer dashed Eastern’s NCAA tourney ambitions.
“Obviously, we had a mission to go to the NCAA Tournament and the rug kind of got pulled out from under us,” Riley said. “It was hard, but these guys are competitors and we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us to play in the NIT on a national stage.
“It’s a great thing when you coach a group that’s this resilient. They’ve had setbacks before. … When the bracket came out, there was a lot of excitement in the room.”
The Eagles, ranked No. 128 in the NET, secured an automatic berth to the NIT about a month ago, when they clinched the Big Sky regular-season title.
WSU’s postseason fate was uncertain heading into Selection Sunday, but the team felt confident it had an NIT résumé – considering its NET ranking (No. 73), its difficult schedule and its late-season surge. Apparently, the NIT selection committee felt the same.
“I think the committee valued that we took on an ambitious schedule,” Smith said. WSU played the 32nd-hardest schedule in the nation, per KenPom.com’s metrics. “I was trying to get us to the next level, playing against the best, and it’s been rewarded. And we had to win our way in, too. If we would have lost any more of those games down the stretch, we wouldn’t have been here.
“We’ll take whatever they give us. We’re thrilled to have a home game.”
The Cougars went 1-11 in Quad 1 games, but claimed a handful of résumé-boosting wins and came up just short against highly ranked opponents Baylor and UCLA. WSU beat Arizona, the eventual Pac-12 tourney champion, in Tucson and collected victories against NCAA Tournament qualifiers USC, Arizona State and Northern Kentucky. The Cougars topped two NIT teams – Oregon and EWU.
WSU saved its best basketball for late in the season. And it appears the Cougars have enough talent and momentum to make some noise in the NIT once again. WSU scored double-digit wins over Santa Clara, SMU and BYU in the tourney last year, earning a trip to Madison Square Garden. The Cougars lost to Texas A&M in the semifinals.
“Last year was more euphoria, just in the sense that we didn’t know if we were going to get in,” Smith said. “There’s more of a calmness (now). We’ve been here before. That’s a factor. … Second time around, we know what’s coming. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it takes a little anxiety out of it.”
Coming off their best season in a decade, the Cougars had NCAA Tournament aspirations. But they ran into health issues early on and struggled with consistency for much of the year as a new-look lineup settled in.
“We gotta be a program that expects to play in the postseason,” Smith said. “Obviously, the big goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament and build off our success. … That’s the next step. It’s kind of been a reset with the injuries. Just getting that experience, there’s nothing like it. I’ll be interested to see our guys who played (in the NIT) last year, how they perform tomorrow night.”
Four WSU players have NIT experience. Two of them, guard TJ Bamba and post Mouhamed Gueye, became standouts this season after serving as role players last year.
Bamba, an All-Pac-12 honorable mention performer, is averaging 22.6 points and shooting 54.8% from the field over the past five games. Gueye, an all-conference first-teamer, is averaging 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 57.3% from the floor over the past eight games.
Gueye played through an unspecified midsection injury during the conference tourney and “has been having some issues with his hamstring,” Smith said. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is the No. 40 prospect nationally for this year’s NBA draft, per ESPN’s projections, but he’s expected to be a full participant in the NIT.
“He wants to play, man,” Smith said. “In this day and age, some guys might be a little hurt or nicked up and they want to preserve their (NBA draft stock). But he really cares about his teammates, really cares about the team. So, he’ll go.”
Leading a balanced Eagles lineup are guard Steele Venters (15.3 ppg), the Big Sky’s player of the year, and forward Angelo Allegri (13.5 ppg), an all-conference first-team honoree. Eastern leans on its offense, which produces 77.1 points per game – 56th nationally. But the Eagles sit at No. 226 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating. WSU enjoys the No. 43 scoring defense in the country at 65 points allowed per game.
“If you kinda label our programs over the last couple of years, Washington State’s identity has been more on the defensive end and ours has been more on the offensive end,” Riley said. “But when you look at their stats, they’re a really good offensive team.”
The Cougars rank No. 63 in offensive efficiency, per KenPom. WSU and EWU take a similar approach on the offensive side, spreading the floor and attempting a high volume of 3s.
The winner of Tuesday’s game will advance to face either top-seeded Oklahoma State or Youngstown State .
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