Charting the Cougs' paths in their tournaments

The women are a 5 seed in the Big Dance, while the men are a 4 seed in the NIT.

Good morning. Go Cougs!

For the second consecutive year, both of WSU’s basketball teams are playing in the postseason, and though only women are competing the NCAA tournament, the men’s appearance in the NIT is an incredibly welcome sight, all things considered. GFC.

With both teams now set in their respective postseasons, I wanted to take a relatively brief look at not just the teams’ first games, but also how the bracket sets up for them to potentially advance.

Before I get rolling with my own analysis, I’m sure you already have some of your own thoughts on both teams. We’d love to hear them!

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It’s good news, bad news(?) for WSU women

So, here’s the good news: When the Cougs tip off on Saturday (game time to be determined), they’ll be a 5 seed in the tournament. That’s the highest they’ve ever been, and theoretically should give them a decided advantage over their 12th-seeded opponents in the opening round.

I don’t know if the flip side here is bad news, so much as it is … less good news.

First off, the Cougs will be traveling all the way to Philadelphia. Yuck.

Second: If you — like me — fill out a men’s bracket every year, you know that the 5/12 matchup is one of the most popular for upsets. Every year, a 5 loses to a 12.

There's actually a good reason why: The 5/12 game isn’t as big of a mismatch as the seeds make it appear, especially when we consider that a mid-major typically appears on that 12 line, and mid-majors are typically underseeded by the committees. When you head over to kenpom.com, you see that the 12 seeds in this year's men’s tournament enter with win probabilities of 44%, 37%, 31%, and 30% against their opening round opponents. Those probabilities add up to 1.42 wins. Someone is going to go down.

Enter WSU’s first round opponent, Florida Gulf Coast.

The Eagles are 30-3 against Division 1 competition and ranked No. 36 by the NET. Their only three losses have come against Stanford (a 1 seed and No. 4 NET), Duke (3 seed and 10), and in overtime at Liberty (not in the tournament, 108).

If that sounds a little freaky, here’s why they’re a 12 seed: Their best win is a 6-point victory at Kentucky (not in the tournament, 80), and the Cardinal and Blue Devils each thrashed them pretty good. The NCAA committee very much wants to see you prove it against quality teams, and the Eagles very much did not prove that they actually are good by playing in their limited opportunities against strong opponents.

Still, that No. 36 ranking is enough to give me some pause. If you don’t know much about NET, it’s very similar to the calculations used by kenponm in that it’s based to a large degree on efficiency margin. FGCU got all the way up to 36 by generally beating the tar out of everyone else they played — they outscored their opponents by more than 20 points per game.

The Cougs, for what it’s worth, finished 30th.

Maybe FGCU is a total fraud that overwhelmed bad teams. But scoring margin is a pretty good indicator of a team’s strength, and there’s enough here to conclude that the Eagles are at least very, very dangerous. Here’s to guessing FGCU will be a fairly popular pick in women’s bracket pools to upset the Cougs.

If WSU can get past FGCU, they’ll take on the winner of the matchup between No. 4 seed Villanova and No. 13 seed Cleveland State. The Wildcats are hosting the pod at their home venue, which (of course) provides a distinct advantage against both the Vikings and their second-round opponent.

Beyond that, Villanova finished ranked 12th in NET. By that metric, the Wildcats would rank third behind only Stanford and Utah in strength of WSU opponents. Factor in that it would be a true road game for the Cougs, and they’re facing an uphill battle to get out of the first weekend.

That said, I’m not as down on the draw as it might seem. One thing I was really hoping the Cougs could avoid this year was the 7-10 seed lines because those feed directly into second round matchups with the sport’s heavyweights. The gap between the top 6-8 teams and everyone else tends to be a lot bigger in women’s basketball, so I’m pretty excited about the idea of not facing South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, Indiana, etc. to advance to the Sweet 16.

The No. 1 seed Hoosiers, though, very likely await if the Cougs can advance to the second weekend.

Another deep NIT run on tap for the men?

There’s really no reason to think that the men can’t win a few games to get back to the NIT’s final four, which is now in Las Vegas rather than Madison Square Garden. It starts with them playing Eastern Washington for the second time this season on Tuesday at 8 p.m. (ESPNU) — this time in Pullman instead of Spokane.

You might remember that the Cougs whipped the Eagles by 26 points back on November 21. You might not remember much about the details: WSU went off from deep, hitting 15-of-30, led by Jabe Mullins’ 8-of-11, while EWU couldn’t shoot its way out of a paper bag, hitting 6-of-27 — and that was with Steele Venters hitting 5-of-7.

A lot has changed since then, as both teams are playing much better ball now — WSU was ranked 80th in kenpom and reeling after losing at Prairie View A&M, while Eastern was ranked 237th. Today, they’re ranked 57 and 122(!!).

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Eagles. After stumbling out to a 4-7 start while playing 10 of those games away from home (as mid/low majors often do), they went on a run of 18 consecutive wins. Eighteen! A handful of those were close — three of them were one-possession wins — but many were blowouts, and they had the No. 1 seed in the Big Sky tournament already locked up with two games to play in the regular season.

Then … it fell apart. An unexpected loss at Idaho State in which their offense went cold late, followed by a home loss to second-place Montana State that wasn’t really all that competitive — they were never within one possession in the second half — followed by a kick-in-the-nuts first-round exit in the Big Sky tournament at the hands of 9th seeded Northern Arizona:

The Eagles have had a week and a half to recover, and it’s tough to say how thrilled they are to be playing in the NIT. On the one hand, it’s a step up from last year’s one-game venture into the pay-to-play The Basketball Classic; on the other, they certainly believed they were destined for a return to the NCAA tournament, where they were in 2021. That said, I would assume that getting a rematch against the Cougs is a particular motivating factor, especially since they likely feel they deserved a better result in the first one.

If the Cougs give up the plethora of looks from deep that they gave up back in November, there’s a high chance it goes a lot more poorly for them this time around — the Eagles developed into one of the better shooting offenses in the country, hitting 36% of their 3s (93rd nationally) while launching 44% of their overall shots from beyond the arc (35th). It’s a profile that’s incredibly similar to WSU, with one notable difference: The Eagles also are really, really good inside the arc, hitting 59% of their 2s — 3rd in the country.

In that respect, the matchup is likely to give Kyle Smith and his staff a few ulcers leading up to the game. Any team that can shoot like that is a bit scary.

Still, there are a ton of reasons why kenpom still only gives EWU a 20% chance to win the game. If there’s one thing that WSU excels at, it’s limiting opponents’ 3-point attempts — they’re in the top 10% nationally at doing that. WSU is either going to take that weapon away, or Eastern is going to have to be content with shooting contested 3s to meet its normal volume. Either way, that’s an advantage for WSU.

Additionally, EWU’s defense is still quite bad, giving up a boatload of 3s — not exactly a great recipe against WSU, as they found out the first time. They also will give up their fair share of offensive rebounds, and they rarely take the ball away.

And then, of course, the Eagles have to deal with Mouhamed Gueye. There’s simply nobody like him in the Big Sky, and he was excellent in the first matchup, scoring 17 points on 11 shots while gobbling up eight rebounds (four of them offensive) with three assists, two blocks, and no turnovers in just 25 minutes. And Mo is a much, much better player today than he was in the fourth game of the season.

Andrej Jakimovski, by the way, didn’t play in the first one. His presence is a huge deal.

To be honest, the Cougs’ biggest challenge might be taking the Eagles seriously. No matter what the coaches say about how dangerous EWU is — and even if the players believe it! — it’s gotta be in the back of the players’ minds that they more or less cruised to a victory in which second-half margin was never less than 14, and not less than 20 in the final nine minutes.

Oh, and there’s this: It’s spring break. Beasley Coliseum will be mostly empty.

If WSU can get past the Eagles, a second round matchup with the Oklahoma State/Youngstown State winner awaits this weekend. The Cowboys — seeded first in the bracket’s quadrant — aren’t as much of a slam dunk in that one as you might think: They have to play this game on the road in Ohio because their athletics staff is all tied up this week running the NCAA wrestling championships on campus. To give you a sense of how much of a difference playing on the road makes, OSU is ranked about 20 spots higher in kenpom than WSU, yet against an opponent roughly the same quality as Eastern, their win probability is only 66%. That would probably be something like 85% if the game was at home.

Should the Cowboys get past the mighty Penguins, they’ll be able to host in the second round this weekend. But if Youngstown is the winner, WSU would assumedly host — and be a significant favorite, as they are against Eastern.

Going on the road to Stillwater would be a big challenge. Other than the win at Arizona, the Cougs haven’t exactly fared well away from home against quality opponents, losing to Boise State, Oregon, Baylor, Utah State, UCLA, USC, and Arizona State — all of whom are either in the NCAA tournament or good enough to be there, as Oklahoma State is.

The Cowboys’ defense is extremely legit, but the offense is suspect — think of them as a better version of Arizona State. It would be a fascinating matchup for the offense-forward Cougs.

If WSU can get past that one? A matchup with 2nd-seeded Sam Houston State (No. 69 kenpom), North Texas (45), Santa Clara (82), or Alcorn State (241). Again, the latter two would result in the game being played in Pullman next week.

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