SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—Just five months ago, this second-round matchup would have been the stuff of bracket-busting fantasy—or maybe just a cruel joke to play on your favorite long-suffering fan of either Vanderbilt or Washington State.
Yet both teams were at quiet Arco Arena on Friday, going through light workouts and preparing for a game that will send either the oft-ignored Commodores or the downtrodden Cougars into the round of 16.
Plenty of underdogs get their day in the NCAA tournament—and when two unheralded programs meet Saturday in the East Regional, both have a rare turn in the national spotlight.
“It’s a great matchup for fans of good basketball,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Maybe we don’t have the national profile, and maybe Washington State doesn’t, but we know how to play a good game.”
The present is pleasant for both schools—and much better than the past.
Washington State hasn’t won two games in the same NCAA tournament since 1941 — and in fact, the Cougars had won just once since then before beating Oral Roberts on Thursday.
Vanderbilt has reached the round of 16 three times in the past 20 years— but such moderate success barely gets noticed in the powerful Southeastern Conference, where the Commodores frequently are an afterthought in the national picture.
Yet third-seeded Washington State (26-7) finished second in the Pac-10 this season and earned a consistent Top 25 ranking under first-year coach Tony Bennett. The Cougars then handily won their opening-round matchup, surging ahead of Oral Roberts after halftime with the same formula of tight defense and steady offense that fueled the Cougars’ surprising rise.
The sixth-seeded Commodores (21-11) also had little trouble against George Washington, because of their remarkable defense. Vanderbilt held its opponent without a field goal for stretches of 6 1/2 minutes and 11 1/2 minutes in the first half alone in a 77-44 rout.
The teams have vast differences in personnel and style—but at least two connections. Stallings made a pilgrimage to Green Bay, Wis., to study under Tony Bennett’s father, former Washington State coach Dick Bennett, when Stallings first became a head coach at Illinois State in 1994.
And Vanderbilt’s Shan Foster played in a memorable high school game in Louisiana against the Cougars’ Ivory Clark.
“It was a great game, but we won,” Foster said. “(Clark) actually scored all of his 33 buckets on me. I fought, too. I had 27.”
The most compelling matchups Saturday should occur when Vanderbilt has the ball. Derrick Byars, the SEC’s player of the year, will team up with Foster in an attempt to solve the tightly packed Washington State defense that stymied Pac-10 opponents all year long.
The Cougars had two strong defensive games against UCLA’s Arron Afflalo, another mid-sized swingman with a stellar outside shot and the ability to penetrate. But Washington State realizes Byars is an unfamiliar challenge.
“Any time you’re the player of the year in a conference with so much talent and athletes like the SEC has, obviously he’s a great player,” Washington State forward Robbie Cowgill said. “We’re going to have to do what we did (against Oral Roberts)—make it a team deal to get him stopped.”
And Washington State has no problem with that type of teamwork. The Cougars defense was outstanding throughout their remarkable regular season—but even when they made the Top 25 and attracted attention for their diverse roster, Washington State didn’t get caught up in its own hype.
“We’ve always been in the very back of the Pac-10 in terms of media attention,” Cowgill said. “We didn’t come in (to Washington State) thinking we were going to be under all the lights and the glamour, and that’s fine with us.”
“They’re a hard-nosed group of kids,” Bennett added. “As freshmen and sophomores, they had to eat a lot of dirt. They’re tough-minded, and there’s a fire burning within. You need that to have success at this level.”
Stallings says much the same about his players. The Commodores hadn’t finished higher than third in the SEC East until this season, when Stallings built a quiet contender around unselfish swingmen Byars and Foster.
“We don’t worry about outsiders and all the speculation,” Byars said. “We just worry about the guys that’s in that locker room. … I just know (Washington State) had a monster season out there in the Pac-10. They’re as good a team defensively as we’ve seen all season.”