RALEIGH, N.C. — Last year, Washington State’s women’s basketball program rose from the depths of obscurity and competed respectably in a powerhouse conference — enough to draw a No. 9 seed at the NCAA tournament.
This season, the Cougars improved in every facet, climbing into the upper echelon of the Pac-12. They received a No. 8 seed.
“I’m excited that we’re an 8, but I’m still a little confused about how we finished tied for second in this league and we end up an 8,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said during a news conference Monday. “I get it, that Utah beat us twice and they’re a 7. But there are still some things I want to work out.”
Ethridge and the Cougars (19-10) will be seeking a historic win — the program’s first victory in only three NCAA tournament appearances — when they square off against ninth-seeded Kansas State at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in the first round at PNC Arena.
They’re already pondering what it’ll take to boost their positioning next year.
“I really want to have some discussions in our Pac-12 meetings,” Ethridge said. “I want someone to come in and talk to us about the entire body of work and strength of schedule and how we should schedule, and how we can set ourselves up to help our resume.
“There’s some frustration still.”
The NCAA Evaluation Tool — better known as the NET ranking system — was adopted ahead of the 2020 season to assist the tourney’s selection committee. It replaced the RPI, which based its rankings on winning percentage and strength of schedule.
The NET rankings are determined by “who you played, where you played, how efficiently you played and the result of the game,” according to the NCAA’s website, which defined the NET as the “contemporary sorting tool used to measure a team’s quality and help evaluate team resumes for selection and seeding in the NCAA Tournament.”
WSU came in at 58th in the final NET rankings, behind seven teams the Cougars defeated this year — Arizona (19), Gonzaga (25), Colorado (29), UCLA (41), Miami (42), Arizona State (47) and Oregon State (53). WSU split with Arizona and UCLA and went 1-0 against each of the others.
“Arizona State is 12-14 and they have a higher NET ranking than us, and worse quadrant losses overall,” Ethridge said. “That’s a big thing, that’s what people are going off of, so the metrics and analytics don’t like us in some ways. We beat Colorado at their place and yet they’re ranked in the 30s.
“I need to learn more about that. I need to put us in a better position … the best position possible in how we schedule nonconference and make sure we have a chance to be a higher seed every time we step on the floor.”
Arizona and Colorado are seeded ahead of WSU at fourth and seventh in the NCAA tournament, respectively. Miami, which lost to the Cougars by 15 in November, also claimed a No. 8 seed and Gonzaga — beaten by WSU 51-49 in December in Spokane — got a No. 9 seed.
Oregon State and UCLA, although ranked ahead of WSU in the NET, missed the cut for the NCAA tournament and settled for NIT bids.
“Clear as mud,” Ethridge said Tuesday on her coach’s show when asked about the tourney’s selection process.
The Cougars went 4-8 this season against fellow March Madness entrants. Three of those wins came by single-digit margins, and all but two of the losses weren’t particularly close — including a 53-point trouncing from fifth-seeded Oregon; a 38-point rout put on at Beasley Coliseum by Stanford, a No. 1 seed; and a 28-point defeat at the hands of North Carolina State, the top seed in the same NCAA tournament region as WSU. BYU, a No. 6 seed, toppled the Cougars by 18 points in December.
“I’ve always scheduled with the thought in mind of playing the best teams, and losing to really good teams won’t hurt you,” Ethridge said.
In the NET era, margin of victory — and defeat — carries significant weight. The Cougars’ NET ranking plummeted after the Oregon game, for instance.
Ethridge noted that the Cougars “really don’t have a bad loss.” She considers the most glaring blemish on their resume to be a 69-62 result in December against Stony Brook, which wound up 23-5 and in the NIT. The Seawolves finished first in the America East but were prohibited from competing in their conference tournament because they are transitioning to a new conference, the Colonial Athletic Association.
“We had bad losses in that we lost by big numbers,” Ethridge said.
“I don’t know if it’s better to not play good teams and beat them by a high margin. It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught — play good teams and get some wins. We got some wins, but I’m just not positive that the analytics are fitting how we play. We gotta figure that out, because we want to put our players in the best position to be the best seed we can possibly be and yes, that’s winning games, and I felt like we did that this year.”
Enough to record their winningest season and lock up their highest NCAA tournament seeding in history.
WSU has raised its bar under Ethridge and, going forward, will be expected to contend for NCAA Tournament berths regularly. It’s still new territory for the program, and the Cougars were nothing but elated when they punched their ticket to March Madness for the second consecutive season. But next time, they’ll probably be expecting a higher seeding.
“An 8 seed is awesome and it’s telling you that you’re a really good team,” Ethridge said. “But you’re also looking at a couple of other teams in your conference that finished below you in the conference and they’re higher than you (in the NCAAs). There’s some concern, but we can work on that in the offseason. Let’s just go try to beat (K-State).”