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WSU Men's Basketball

Commentary: Soft nonconference schedule aside, Washington State boasts legit NCAA Tournament credentials

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

In a Pac-12 season stocked with surprises and mediocrity, Washington State’s ascent makes the short list of unexpected developments.

The Cougars meandered through November and December, above .500 but under the radar because of a pillowy soft non-conference schedule. On the opening weekend of league play, they lost twice on the Mountain trip. Then came a home loss to Oregon and a 1-3 start.

Since then, WSU has won six of seven games, morphed into one of the hottest teams in the West and climbed onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Yep, the Cougars are a threat to make the field of 68 for the first time since it was a field of 64 and Klay Thompson was all the rage in Pullman, not nearing retirement with the Warriors.

There’s plenty to like about WSU’s resume, including four Quadrant I wins (the best kind), no Quadrant IV losses (the worst type) and a signature victory over Arizona.

Also, the Cougars own five wins on the road or neutral courts — an important piece to the NCAA selection process.

They are 40th in the NET rankings, indicative of a team squarely on the bubble.

The latest NCAA projections by ESPN list the Cougars as one of the first teams left out, suggesting a berth is within easy reach.

But there is one glaring flaw: A non-conference schedule that ranks No. 320 nationally out of 362 teams in the well-respected Pomeroy advanced metrics.

The barrage of early season creampuffs won’t prevent the Cougars from sneaking into the NCAAs, but it limits their margin for error. All other components to their resume must be above reproach in order for the selection committee to get comfortable with the one part of the schedule they controlled.

Coach Kyle Smith had the chance to challenge his team and declined. Will the committee hold that against WSU? If given the option, it very well might.

And so we ask: Can the Cougars collect enough quality wins down the stretch, while avoiding bad losses, to remove all doubt?

If nothing else, it’s a fascinating topic that, in all candor, we never expected to address.