We'll be spending a lot of time in the next 36 or so hours breaking down what we're likely to see on the court, but one of the intangibles that's harder to get a grip on is who has the edge emotionally in this contest.
And while we generally like to deal in concrete metric measures in these parts -- and we most definitely will after this post -- there's no denying that emotion plays a part in any athletic contest involving 18-23 year olds. Anyone who watched UCLA play inspired, revenge-minded basketball against the Cougs, then go out and get their you-know-whats handed to them by revenge-minded USC a night later, knows what I'm talking about.
Besides, when you're talking about a game that Pomeroy has predicted is basically a tossup, something like this could make the difference.
So how do these two teams stack up?
The Gaels, of course, are Dick Vitale's cause du jour after being left out of the NCAA Tournament field, presumably in favor of Arizona. (Which, of course, ignores the similar resumes of San Diego State and Creighton, both of whom I felt had much stronger cases than St. Mary's.)
Personally, I think they should all just shut up -- St. Mary's had three chances to beat Gonzaga and show it belonged with the big boys, and failed three times. I understand Patty Mills was hurt in the first two contests; but the last time, in the WCC championship, with Mills back and everything on the line? The Gaels didn't just lose ... they got destroyed on a neutral court by an eventual No. 4 seed. Wins against two teams not in the tournament (Providence and San Diego State) and another team that might not have gotten in had they not won their conference tournament (Utah State) don't impress me as much as they apparently do Vitale.
Or, you can just hear it from coach Randy Bennett himself:
The question then becomes: Does this heartbrokenness translate into pissed-offedness or self-pityness come Tuesday night?
One would tend to think the former. But I'm not so sure. Yes, they'll be playing a home game against a major conference opponent on national television. There's not a lot of history out there the past two years since the NIT was revamped of "snubbed" midmajors hosting games, but there are a few examples that suggest that there's a letdown factor.
- In 2008, No. 2 seed Illinois State hosted Utah State, managing to barely get by the Aggies at home before losing to Dayton.
- In 2007, No. 3 seed Drexel was easily upset at home by NC State in the first round.
- Also in 2007, No. 3 seed Missouri State -- not necessarily considered a snub that year -- lost at home to San Diego State in the opening round.
For a midmajor, the NCAA Tournament is the holy grail. And I just think when a team focuses so much on a certain goal and then doesn't attain it, it's tough to get up again only a couple of days later.
Additionally, when you already think you belong in a contest with the upper crust of the major conferences -- which they clearly believe -- you start to lose that "something to prove" factor. It becomes awful tough to get all that jacked up for big brother's seventh place team, even if it is on national television.
This team also doesn't have that "send our seniors out with a bang" factor. Sophomore Patty Mills -- expected to test the NBA waters -- might or might not be back, while second option Omar Samhan is only a junior. Simply put, this doesn't seem like a team composed of guys who are going to want to scrape and scrap for every last win it can get this year.
However, you can't discount the home-court advantage. I'm certain that's the reason Pomeroy has St. Mary's as a 52 percent favorite in this one, despite being ranked 61st to WSU's 31st. Even if the Gaels aren't real happy to be in this game, the crowd could give them a huge lift in an arena where they were 13-1 and dominant more often than not.
Has there ever been a team or fanbase more excited to have gotten in the NIT? It's kind of interesting to me, since we're coming off of two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. But after looking like their postseason chances were finished a few weeks ago before heading down to LA, this represents a pretty huge accomplishment for a group that teetered on oblivion for much of the season.
But the Cougs aren't just happy to be here. They had a genuine desire to play in this tournament -- for a few reasons.
First, I think they really want to keep playing because they feel like they're playing their best ball of the year and want an opportunity to show it. The seniors are doing what they've done, but the freshmen are no longer playing like freshmen, even down to Mike Harthun(!), who gave us some good minutes against UCLA. There is a motivation to prove that the late run to end the season was more than just a fluke.
Second, playing in the postseason for the third consecutive year adds legitimacy to what Tony Bennett is building in Pullman. Make no mistake: The Cougs are grateful for the opportunity to be in the NIT, and would love nothing more than to show on national television that this is a program still on the rise.
Third, I think the seniors don't want to go out the way they went out against UCLA. You have to believe these guys are going to fight like mad with the desperation we saw in each game leading up to the Pac-10 Tournament loss. They now know that any loss from here on out really will be the end of their careers, and the effort likely will reflect that.
This also is a team unlikely to be flustered by the crowd in the Gaels' high school gym. While the chance remains that the freshmen are hyper jacked up for the postseason, I just don't see that as a huge issue. They've played in tough environments, and this one isn't any more likely to be hostile than, say, the McKale Center or Pauley Pavilion.
This truly is a tough call. If it were being played in Pullman or at a neutral court, I'd say the edge clearly goes to WSU. But a rowdy home crowd can make up for a lot and lift a team that otherwise might be a little flat. That said, desperation is a huge, huge motivator, and the Cougs just seem like the more determined team at this stage. Emotional edge to WSU.