"We thought we were an NCAA tournament team," said Washington State's Klay Thompson. "We just have the opportunity now to prove to people that we are."
As a Washington State fan, it hurts to disagree with the all Pac-10 junior who led the conference this season in scoring, averaging over 22 points a game. But Washington State is not an NCAA tournament team. Not when you suffer losses to bottom feeder Arizona State and lose at home to Stanford, and it's not even close.
But the Cougars are an NIT-bound team and they'll open their quest to get to New York City tonight in Pullman against the Long Beach State 49ers.
While it's nice for the Cougars to play in their own confines of Beasley Coliseum, it won't be nearly as rowdy inside because the students (including myself) are out of town for Spring Break. It will be interesting to see the crowd size when they play on ESPNU tonight at 7 p.m.
The Cougars are looking to rebound after a thrilling yet disappointing quarterfinal exit to the Washington Huskies one week ago in the Pac-10 tournament. A game that saw Thompson score a tournament-record 43 points.
In that game, the Huskies had five players score in double figures, four of whom scored at least 16 points. A large part to the spread production was the ball movement. The Huskies amassed 20 assists, and that was the fourth time a Washington State opponent has gone for more than 20 assists as a team.
The Cougars have lost all four of those games.
The 49ers of Long Beach State 135th in the nation, averaging just over 13 assists a game.
They were 22-11 this season and 14-2 in the Big West conference. They were also riding an 11-game winning streak into the Big West tournament championship game before being knocked off by UC Santa Barbara, 64-56.
A loss that prompted an article on Bleacher Report on Mar. 13 by Jo-Ryan Salazar that included the sentence "...it is my hope that the Beach gets crushed in the first round of the NIT."
The 49ers were able to dominate their conference in large part thanks to their non-conference schedule, which saw them play six teams that reached the NCAA Tournament this year.
San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Utah State, Clemson and St. Peters.
Of those six, St. Peters was the only opponent to lose to Long Beach State, however, the 49ers did manage to stay close to North Carolina in Chapel Hill before losing 96-91.
Junior guard Casper Ware led the 49ers this year with 17 points a game and over four assists a game, and at season's end was awarded Big West player of the year honors.
He and teammate Larry Anderson, who averaged 14 points and three assists, were two of the six conference players to make up the All-Conference first team.
To go along with the guard combo, Washington State will also need to contain big man T.J. Robinson. The 6'8" junior who's listed at just 215 pounds averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds, including a 19-point, 19-rebound effort in a victory against UC Santa Barbara back in February.
For the Cougars, DeAngelo Casto is the same height as Robinson, but has a 40-pound weight advantage and must use that to his advantage to keep Robinson off the glass.
The NIT has already seen a No. 2 seed fall when Saint Mary's was knocked off by Kent State last night, so the Cougars can't feel like they can coast through.
Casto echoed those sentiments.
"We've got something to prove. So we just have to go out there and win."
The winner of this game will take on Oklahoma State in the next round.