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WSU still likely in solid position for NCAA tournament selection

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Cherilyn Molina drives the lane during the upset win over UCLA.
Shelly Hanks/WSU Photo Services

“What will it take for Washington State to make the NCAA tournament?” It’s a question that often has a more complicated answer than the asker wants to hear; we like it when someone can tell us “do this and you’re in.” But any “bracketologist” worth their salt will tell you that it’s hardly ever that simple.

After three consecutive losses — to unranked USC, top 10 Arizona, and unranked Arizona State — it might feel like WSU’s grasp on their bid to return to the NCAA women’s basketball is slipping away. The school rather famously has only ever made it once, and that was 30 years ago.

However, the Cougars are still safely in if you believe ESPN “bracketologist” Charlie Creme, who still has the Cougs sitting as a 9 seed in his latest 64-team projection. Heck, the Cougars are even still in his contingency 48-team projection, albeit as the very last team in the field. (A 48-team tournament could take place in the event the NCAA decides to shrink the field because of COVID; this option seems increasingly unlikely, for what it’s worth.)

The reality is that the resumé needed to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid is a moving target; your selection is relative to the performance of everyone around you vying for the those spots.

Here’s a little thought exercise.

Everyone would agree that it would be best that WSU won its final three games, which are all very winnable. But what if the Cougars lose all three? “They’re toast for sure!” OK ... but what if everyone else projected to be in that 9- to 11-seed range also loses their last three games?

Obviously that’s very unlikely to happen, and maybe even mathematically impossible. But in such a scenario, WSU still has a stronger resumé, yeah?

If you were paying attention to Creme’s projections over the weekend, you saw a version of this play out. At some point on Sunday, following their loss to ASU, Creme dropped the Cougars to an 11 seed and put them in the “last four in” category. However, by Monday morning, WSU was back up to a 9 seed and safely out of the “last four in” — despite having not played. Something happened around them to reshuffle the deck.

This is why you need to beware those Twitter experts who would say “WSU needs to go [a certain record] over the final three games to get in” or “any loss to [Colorado/Utah/Washington] is a such bad loss, it would drop them out.” Nobody really knows!

It’s always best to speak in probabilities.

  • Winning all three probably secures their spot.
  • Winning two out of three probably does the same.
  • Winning only one of the last three probably puts them squarely on the in/out line.
  • Losing all three probably puts them out.

The biggest thing the Cougars have going for them is that they’ve got a pair of big wins over top-flight teams — the selection committees usually give teams more credit for showing they can beat very good teams (which WSU has done twice, against projected 2 seed Arizona and 3 seed UCLA) than it penalizes them for showing they can lose to bad teams. A great example is USC: The Trojans have beaten the Cougars twice, yet sit in Creme’s first four out. The difference? Those are USC’s best wins. They’ve otherwise gotten crushed by the league’s top four of Stanford, UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon.

(This also, by the way, is how quality mid majors excluded from at-large bids every year —despite objective measures telling us they are every bit as good, or better than, some of their high major counterparts, they just don’t have the opportunity to pick up those wins.)

This is the benefit to WSU to playing in the ridiculous gauntlet that is Pac-12 women’s basketball, and it should be enough to separate them from their bubble competition.

The Cougars will get back at it on Friday at noon against Colorado. You can watch it here for free while you work!

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