Tourney-bound Cougs: Nothing has changed!

THE 800-PLUS supporters who turned out to watch Sunday's NCAA tournament selection show with the Cougar men's basketball team is itself an obvious sign that things have changed around the Palouse. But going into this week's first-round matchup with 14-seed Oral Roberts of the Mid-Continent Conference, WSU head coach Tony Bennett and his players are sticking to the notion that nothing has changed.

"You have to be who you are. We're not reinventing the wheel … you try to be as good as you can doing what you've been doing all year," Bennett said to assembled reporters after learning of WSU's tournament seeding. The Cougs play at 11:40 am PT on Thursday.

Cougars junior point guard Derrick Low says the team is still keeping the us-against-the-world mindset that made them one of the country's surprise teams all season. "We may not be [an underdog] on paper, but we always go into [games] with an underdog mentality. It's motivation," Low said.

When a reporter pointed out to Low that a No. 3 seed means the Cougars are a Top 12 team nationally and a realistic pick to make the Sweet 16 at least, Low still talked as if he was leading a mid-major conference squad hoping to upset one of the big dogs.

"Even though we were among the top teams, we're capable of being beaten on any given night if we're not on our game," answered Low, who's averaging 13.6 points, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game this season. "You have to remain humble. On paper it wouldn't be a shock [if WSU made the Sweet 16], but I'm sure there are a lot of doubters out there."

Junior wing Kyle Weaver even in dropped an "I'm just happy to be here," that's more associated with No. 14 seeds, not No. 3 seeds from a power conference like the Pac-10.

The Cougars gathered in the school's Bohler Gym to watch the Big Dance selection show. Weaver (11.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.2 spg, 1.3 bpg) said all of the players jumped out of their seats when "Washington State" appeared on the TV screen, and that senior guard Antonio Chavers might have had the most excited reaction. Sophomore guard Taylor Rochestie had a video camera rolling to capture the moment, the type of moment that hasn't been seen in Pullman since the team last made the NCAA field in 1994.

"You know you're in, but it still makes your heart race a little bit," Bennett said, later adding that, "It's not the end-all, be-all goal, but a major goal was to get the team into the NCAA tournament. To have it become a reality today felt good."

Low said he felt "a mixture of both nervous and anxious, but more on the anxious side" while watching.

It was a stark contrast from one year ago, when Low said he was sleeping on Selection Sunday, while Bennett and Weaver said they too didn't watch the selection show at all, when the sub-.500 Cougars had no shot of getting in.

Bennett, who played in one Big Dance with Wisconsin-Green Bay (1991) and was an assistant on several of his father Dick Bennett's tournament teams at Wisconsin, said the Cougars will have a four-hour practice on Monday and get in another practice on Tuesday before flying out to Sacramento for Thursday's opening-round game.

He admitted the coaching staff didn't know a whole lot about Oral Roberts – only that the Golden Eagles beat West Region No. 1 seed Kansas on the road earlier this season, and that ORU has "a good perimeter guy and a good interior guy," referring to guard Ken Tutt (16.1 ppg) and forward Caleb Green (20.8 ppg) – but game tapes would be available ASAP. Bennett said the staff had taped almost every conference tournament game around the country, and should at least have footage of Oral Roberts' conference title win over Oakland last Tuesday.

While an Oral Roberts win would make for one of those classic "One Shining Moment" 14-over-3 upsets that everyone (except for Coug fans) wants to see, Bennett hopes to avoid that by staying with the same game plan that pushed WSU to a 25-7 record.

"We have to play the kind of basketball that made us successful," Bennett said. "You don't have to worry about us looking by anybody. We're not going to be someone different just because it's the NCAA Tournament. The game is the game, and we'll play it as well as we can."

Nor do you have to worry about the Cougars looking ahead to the next potential matchup. (A win over Oral Roberts would pair WSU with the George Washington/Vanderbilt winner. Georgetown, Boston College, Texas Tech and Belmont are also in WSU's half of the East Regional bracket.)

"It's that win-or-go home mentality," Bennett said. "You think about ‘If we win, this is how it breaks out,' but it's nothing more than that."

Interestingly enough, one-fourth of the East Regional bracket will begin in Spokane, Wash., just an hour and a half drive from Pullman. Fourth-seeded Texas will play New Mexico State, and No. 5 seed USC faces Arkansas in Spokane on Friday. The Cougars admitted collectively they would have liked to play in Spokane, but Sacramento was the next-best thing.

"We're close to the West side," Low said. "Our families can come see us."

Asked about the rest of the NCAA tourney field, Bennett admitted he hadn't seen the entire bracket yet.

"It just looks good to see ‘Washington State' on there," he said.

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