The Washington State women’s basketball team is coming off a historic season where it made an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 1991. The Cougs have returned most of that roster, and expectations are high for another trip to the postseason. In the Pac-12’s preseason media poll, Wazzu was picked 6th.
How often does the 6th-place team in the Pac-12 make the NCAA tournament? In the last 11 years, in 10 tournaments, it has happened just twice. Oregon State would have almost certainly been given an at-large bid in 2020. Even adding that, it’s surprising to see that 6th-place isn’t more often good enough for the tourney in a traditionally strong league.
One thing to note—since 2014, there has been one more at-large bid available, as the number of Division 1 conferences shrunk to 32. Both 6th-place at-large bids and the likely Oregon State bid in 2020 came after that change. So, the math has changed in WSU’s favor.
Kamie Ethridge’s History vs. the Polls
Earlier, we examined how WSU men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith has outperformed his KenPom.com projections frequently. There’s not a KenPom for women’s hoops, but I decided to run the same exercise for WSU women’s basketball coach Kamie Ethridge using preseason media poll projections. Much like Smith, Ethridge has generally performed well against the polls, beating or meeting those educated guesses in five of seven seasons (the one case of finishing exactly as predicted was when she won the Big Sky in 2018).
Of course, WSU grabbed an NCAA tournament bid last season while finishing in 7th place. That was in large part to some massive victories over UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, and fellow bubble team Colorado early in the season. Those wins allowed the Cougs to withstand a late-season swoon and still present a good enough resume to the tournament committee for inclusion.
Looking at Ethridge’s history, it’s highly likely her team finishes at least around where predicted, and more likely they finish above the media projection. If WSU is in that realm of 7th in the league or higher, they will be in the conversation for a return trip to the Dance. It will all come down to big wins, and last year they got some big performances to help secure those important victories.
The Players Matter, Too
Returning star and All-American candidate Charlisse Leger-Walker is definitely cause for optimism. As a freshman, she came up with big plays to down the stretch on both ends of the floor against UCLA and Arizona. She also was the focal point of the offense for much of the season, using over 30% of the team’s possessions while she was on the floor.
Last year, wear and tear was a big concern. WSU's late-season losing streak coincided with the departure of backup guard Cherilyn Molina from the program. That left Charlisse and her sister Krystal Leger-Walker playing nearly the full minutes in every game. Molina was one of WSU’s most efficient scorers, a capable on-ball defender, and hit two big 3-pointers in the double-overtime win over Oregon State in Corvallis.
Will WSU be able to fill the void that Molina left last year, and keep legs fresh on their star guards? Improvements from returning rotation pieces Grace Sarver and Michaela Jones would certainly help, as would greater offensive contributions from starters Ula Motuga, Bella Murekatete, and Johanna Teder.
One wild card is Tara Wallack. The freshman is a versatile 6’2 guard that can score both inside and outside. She can handle the ball, and she can guard multiple positions. If she provides something tangible that allows Charlisse Leger-Walker to take some longer spells on the bench, that will go a long way.
The Cougs have the roster, including a superstar player, to get back to the NCAA tournament. They have a capable coach that will get the most out of the team. The key will be winning the right games and impressing with big performances, but less of those are required if they can avoid a long losing streak and beat all the teams they should beat.
Prospects are good. Now it’s time for Wazzu to execute, starting with the non-conference schedule and San Jose State.