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How can WSU improve its NCAA tournament chances against UW?

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Washington State faces UW in the Apple Cup series hoping to improve its NCAA tournament chances.

PULLMAN, WA - FEBRUARY 21: Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker (5) takes a shot during the first half of a Pac 12 matchup between the Utah Utes and the Washington State Cougars on February 21, 2021, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, WA. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

The Washington State Cougars are firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble heading into their final regular-season matchup against the Washington Huskies, part of the Apple Cup Series, in Pullman on Saturday (1 pm PT, Pac-12 Network Washington). The Cougs opened the Pac-12 campaign with a win in Seattle over UW and are hoping to repeat that result to strengthen their resume and set up a more favorable Pac-12 Tournament seeding.

WSU currently sits at No. 44 in the NCAA Net Rankings. Its 10-10 record doesn’t jump off the page, but the Cougs have two signature wins over No. 12 (in NET) Arizona and No. 7 UCLA, along with roads wins at Colorado and Oregon State that have looked more and more impressive as the season goes along. In fact, the Beavers currently rank No. 36 in NET, while the Buffaloes are No. 49, meaning both will qualify at Quadrant 1 wins.

Those four Quadrant 1 wins are currently making a case for the Cougs—who are among the Last Four In on Charlie Creme’s bracketology for ESPN. College Sports Madness places WSU more firmly in the field of 64 as a 9-seed.

What can WSU do to strengthen its bubble resume against Washington? First, a loss would be a devastating blow to the Cougs’ NCAA tournament hopes. The Huskies are No. 89 in NET, and falling to them at home, while also dropping to a losing record, would certainly do significant harm to their stock in the eyes of the selection committee.

Losing to UW would also make it much more difficult for WSU to make back up any ground on its resume in the Pac-12 Tournament. A loss would put the Cougs at 8-11 in league play and drop them from a 7-seed in the conference tournament to an 8-seed.

Why does that matter? If the Cougs were able to win that first-round matchup, they’d face Stanford in the second round. That’s an opportunity for a big win, sure, but Stanford is the only team this season against which WSU has truly looked outmatched. The Cougs hung close with every other school, but they were blown out twice by the Cardinal. Getting that much-needed resume boost in the Pac-12 Tournament would be very difficult if the second-round matchup is Stanford.

So, to state the obvious here: Beating UW sets up WSU to strengthen its NCAA tournament bubble hopes in two ways. At the very least, the win would keep the Cougs on even footing when it comes to their resume. Even better would be a big win because NET uses adjusted efficiency margin as a significant portion of the math. The bigger the win, the more WSU will rise.

Beating UW also ensures WSU finishes no lower than 7th in the standings, with a chance to rise as high as a 6-seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. If WSU lands at the 7-seed, it will face Utah in the first round, a team it has handled twice. The Cougs would then have a chance to face Arizona in the second round, a team it has beaten once and hung close with until the fourth quarter on the road.

Even better, if the Cougs were able to hop Oregon State for the 6-seed (if they win and OSU loses to Oregon), WSU would face Washington with UCLA waiting in the second round. The Cougs have beaten UCLA once and taken them to overtime on the road. The Bruins also feature a higher NET rating than Arizona so that game would provide a little more resume juice.

EDIT: Of course, there’s also the COVID-19 wrinkle. WSU could have hopped Colorado for 5th place, but the Buffs’ game against Utah has been canceled due to COVID-19 issues in the Utes’ program. If Utah can’t play in the tournament, we will likely see a configuration similar to the men’s tournament, where the top five teams get byes. This would change who WSU plays in the first round, but the second-round matchups would stay the same.

Bottom line: Beat the Huskies. That’s true now, and that is true forever and ever. If the Cougs can do that, they maintain their current bubble state and are set up to a favorable path to strengthen their NCAA tournament resume in the Pac-12 tournament.