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WSU Cougars return to NIT, will host Santa Clara in opening round

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As it turned out, WSU — a 4 seed — was comfortably in the field.

PULLMAN, WA - MARCH 5: Washington State Cougars Men’s Basketball versus the University of Oregon Ducks at Beasley Coliseum - Washington State guard Will Burghardt (33) Jack Ellis/CougCenter

The Washington State Cougars are continuing their most successful season in a decade by making their first postseason appearance since 2012 after being selected to play in the NIT as a No. 4 seed, where they will host Santa Clara in the first round.

The game will be at 8 p.m. on Tuesday from Beasley Coliseum, and it will be broadcast on ESPNU or ESPN.com (with a cable subscription).

The NIT status of the Cougars (19-14) was considered tenuous in the lead up to selection, but it turned out that they were comfortably in the field. If they are able to get past the Broncos (21-11) in the first round, they’ll face the winner of top-seeded SMU and Nicholls State.

Here’s the full bracket:

Santa Clara will be a tough matchup for WSU; they’re ranked 68th by kenpom.com (the Cougars are 55th) and possess three wins that are better than any win WSU has secured, having smacked TCU in a holiday tournament before beating BYU (an NIT No. 2 seed) and Saint Mary’s (No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament) at home.

The Broncos — who actually finished third in the WCC, ahead of NCAA tournament team San Francisco — are an extremely offense-forward team, ranking 26th nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency. They are one of the best shooting teams in the country, ranking 18th in effective field goal percentage; and while they don’t take a ton of 3s, they do fifth in 3-point percentage, hitting nearly 39% of their 3s. They also like to play real fast on offense, ranking 17th nationally in offensive possession length.

They’re led by a pair of all-conference players in junior point guard Jalen Williams and senior forward Josip Vrankic. Williams, at 6-foot-6, averages a hyper-efficient 18 points to go with just a shade over 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Vrankic, meanwhile, averages 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

Their defense, however, is suspect, ranking just 146th in adjusted defensive efficiency; their 2-point defense is superior, but they force very few turnovers and are only so-so rebounding the ball, so teams get multiple bites at the apple — something that should benefit WSU. Interestingly, the Broncos allow one of the lower rates of 3-point attempts in the country; we all know what WSU likes to do from deep.

WSU last played Santa Clara, led by former Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, during Kyle Smith’s first season. The Cougs lost that one 70-62. WSU has never lost to Santa Clara in three games in Pullman, including a 69-68 win in 2016,

The postseason appearance represents yet another step forward for coach Kyle Smith and his staff, who were tasked with turning around a program that was among the worst in the Power 5 under Ernie Kent. They improved to a .500 record in his first season, then posted a winning record last year before improving to 19 wins — the most in a regular season since 2011 — with 11 Pac-12 wins this season.

Led by Klay Thompson, WSU went to the NIT in that 2011 season and advanced all the way to the semifinals before losing to Wichita State at Madison Square Garden. Those Cougs entered the tournament ranked 50th at kenpom.com; these Cougs are ranked 55th.

Are they capable of the same kind of deep run? It starts on Tuesday.