Washington State's late-season surge has earned the Cougars a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. And don't dare tell coach Tony Bennett the NIT is second-rate compared to the NCAA tournament.

"If any Washington State fans feel that way, tell them to get a clue. Certainly the NCAA is elite, but this is pretty special," Bennett said Sunday night after the 71-year-old NIT announced the Cougars will travel to Moraga, Calif., on Tuesday to play Saint Mary's in the first round of the tournament made up of teams not selected by the NCAA.

"I guess they don't understand how competitive the season is and how hard it is to get into postseason play," Bennett said. "I remember getting here and how difficult it was."

The Cougars are the only Pac-10 team in the 32-team NIT, which began in 1938 - one year before the NCAA's event started.

Bennett noted the honor of playing in this NIT, which also includes the storied and accomplished programs of Kentucky, Florida and Georgetown. The tournament's final rounds are played at Madison Square Garden in New York.

This is the third consecutive postseason tournament for the Cougars (17-15), who made the NCAA tournament the previous two years. They are seeded seventh in the San Diego State region of this NIT.

"That's huge for us. There aren't too many banners hanging around our place," Bennett said. "To have the chance to win one is great.

"We're just excited to still be playing."

Washington State beat Oregon then lost to UCLA last week in the Pac-10 tournament, which WSU knew it had to win to make the NCAAs.

Saint Mary's (26-6) lost to Gonzaga in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament last week. The Gaels believe that had star point guard Patrick Mills not gotten hurt during the regular season when they were rolling, they would have bested Gonzaga and won the WCC.

Saint Mary's still believes it should have made the NCAA field.

"I was hoping common sense prevailed," said coach Randy Bennett of the small Catholic, liberal arts school near San Francisco. "Using common sense, we're one of the top 34 (at-large) teams. This was the best team we've ever had, so it's just disappointing to be in this situation."

Bennett knows that will make an always packed, charged campus arena even more juiced for Saint Mary's Tuesday night.

"They've been kind of jilted, I guess, by the NCAA. They want to prove (themselves)," Bennett said.

Bennett said Daven Harmeling, who missed two games with a shoulder injury before playing sparingly against UCLA last week, will be available Tuesday on a limited basis.

This is the fourth NIT bid for the Cougars - their first since 1996. WSU reached the quarterfinals of the NIT in 1995.


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