Here we go.
The night before the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament is like the night before Christmas. Seriously. The best two sports days of the year are upon us, and lucky for me it usually falls over Spring Break. Except for this year. But nevertheless, I will be there to watch most of tomorrow’s games including the Cougs at 4:20 and will be TiVoing the Gonzaga game on Friday that happens to fall during class.
The good news for the Cougs, is that they will be playing in what is likely a friendly arena (the Pepsi Center in Denver), although neutrals in NCAA tournament crowds can often swing towards the underdog if the momentum is there. It will also be a homecoming for two Colorado natives on the WSU roster, Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest. Both went relatively unnoticed nationally out of high school and have had a very positive impact on this rebuilt Cougar program. I think it’s safe to say there are some basketball fans in Boulder who might be a little irked that their school didn’t go after either player.
This game ultimately comes down to defense. For WSU, the ability to defend perimeter shooting. Winthrop is not a team that can threaten WSU on the inside. What they can do, like so many underdogs in the tourney, is catch fire from 3 and steal a win.
For the Eagles, it is a matter of competing with the Cougars on the glass and trying to stop any number of Cougar players from scoring. The problem is that WSU has too many weapons on offense. To be competitive, Winthrop will have to keep the game low-scoring and find just enough offense of their own.
Line: Washington State (-9)
Why the Eagles might win: Washington State has made five trips to the NCAA tournament. Winthrop has eight appearances in the last ten years. It’s rare when you can say a Big South team has more tourney experience than a BCS conference team. That and Chris Gaynor’s 42.7% 3-point shooting.
Why the Cougs might win: There are no Lopez twins on this team – Winthrop is relatively undersized which should keep Aron Baynes out of foul trouble and give the Cougs a significant rebounding advantage.
X-Factor: Aron Baynes. Remember the Aron Baynes that dominated smaller teams in the Cougs’ non-conference schedule? Well, he’ll have a chance to do it all again. If he limits his fouls on the other end.
Prediction: Washington State 60, Winthrop 50.
Cougfan has a great piece on Thomas Kelati and his contribution to the Cougar program that you see today. I fear that fans who were unfamiliar with Dick Bennett’s teams, especially the younger students, may not realize the impact Kelati had and what a class guy he was on and off the court. I actually did meet Kelati – he and fellow teammate Shami Gill lived near my girlfriend’s old apartment and one of the two (I think it was Shami) had left his car lights on. We went over to tell him – actually my girlfriend told him while I stood speechless so I wouldn’t blurt out something like “You’re Awesome!!” and embarrass myself. There weren’t many people who viewed Kelati as a celebrity around town, but I was one of them. Nice guys, though – they really set the foundation for what you see today.
Also, Washington loses to Valparaiso in the opening round of the CBI. Yes, this is the same Husky team that beat UCLA by 10 at Hec Ed last month. Your guess is as good as mine.