NIT enticing but Cougs don't control destiny

BAYNES LOOKS TO PLAY ANOTHER DAY

OK, THE COUGS were more frigid than a Chi O in January. That's now ancient history. Besides, the historic odds of beating UCLA back-to-back -- in Los Angeles, no less -- just weren't in the crimson corner. So let's turn attention to what matters: The NIT. "We would love to go to the NIT," Taylor Rochestie said Thursday after the Bruins eliminated the Cougs from the Pac-10 tourney.

Coach Tony Bennett was equally effusive, calling the prospects of the Cougs in the NIT "awesome."

The NIT, once so prestigious that Marquette turned down a high seed in the 1970 NCAA tourney in order to hoop it up at Madison Square Garden, is the 32-team step-sister of the Big Dance.

But facts are facts. It's a chance to continue the season against very good competition.

The Cougars, at 17-15 overall and 9-11 in conference games, aren't a lock for the NIT. That's because the NIT, which is now owned by the NCAA, is obligated to take any small-conference team that won its regular season title but lost its conference tourney (and, with it, its conference's one entry to the NCAA tourney). In a typical year, eight or more of the NIT's 32 invitations are secured this way.

So from a Cougar perspective, it's bad news when a Portland State usurps regular-season champ Weber State out of the Big Sky or a Chattanooga comes out of the shadows to take the Southern Conference's slot away from Davidson.

If too many slots are taken up through the default process, the Cougars' 80-something RPI score could put them on the bubble. As of today, the folks at bracketproject.com have WSU in the NIT field – but with a cautionary note that the Cougs are one of nine teams in danger of falling out if things go awry with too many small-conference tournaments.

The NIT is regarded as far more prestigious than the new CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament and the second annual College Basketball Invitational. The latter two events each involve 16 teams.

All three tournaments are single-elimination except for the best-of-three CBI finals. All games are held at college home arenas except for the NIT Final Four, which is held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

"I want to go to Madison Square Garden," Rochestie said. "I want to compete with these guys (teammates) as long as I can."

First-round games in all three tournaments will be held next Tuesday and Wednesday. ESPNU televises the NIT selection show at 6 p.m. Sunday; the CBI and CI.com fields will be announced later.

WSU athletic director Jim Sterk said he believes the Cougars have a chance of landing a first-round NIT home game. The NIT covers all expenses for teams; the CBI and CI.com can cost teams money.

The CBI reportedly charged teams $60,000 to stage a first-round home game last year. Sterk did not provide figures for this year's tournaments, but said the CI.com tourney is less expensive than the CBI.

The Cougars are averaging 8,018 fans per home game this season. That ranks sixth in school history, but Pullman will be largely deserted next week during WSU's spring break.

Washington State's NIT hopes may have been damaged by the first-round loss of Arizona, regarded as an NCAA Tournament bubble team, at the Pac-10 Tournament

NOTABLE:
In the 1990s, with the likes of Bennie Seltzer, Fred Ferguson, Mark Hedrickson and Isaac Fontaine leading the way, WSU sandwiched three NIT appearances around one trip to March Madness. The 1995 Cougs advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT.

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