The Northwest Athletic Conference’s men’s basketball tournament, which tips off Saturday in Everett, can be a crapshoot.
No one knows that better than Jeff Reinland, who one year ago took his Walla Walla team to the tournament as a No. 3 seed out of the East Region and returned home with the first NWAC championship in his 24 years as the Warriors’ head coach.
After grinding out a testy 69-67 victory over Pierce in the first round, the Warriors barnstormed the rest of the way. They walloped Whatcom 100-80 in the quarterfinals, undid Umpqua 87-73 in the semis and terrorized Tacoma 93-75 in a championship game in which they led 52-26 at halftime.
“We just peaked at the right time,” said Reinland, whose team took a somewhat modest 20-8 season record into the tournament in 2017.
The Walla Wallans return to Everett this weekend as the defending champions. And this time they enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed out of the East with an improved 22-7 record overall.
But as far as Reinland is concerned, and recent history suggests, NWAC seeding means little if anything at all.
“When you are talking about men’s basketball in the NWAC, all 15 teams are capable of beating you,” Reinland said. “Sure, there are some people you would rather play than others, but every game is going to be tough.”
The road begins Saturday afternoon at 2 when the Warriors take on a Centralia team that comes in with an unimpressive 10-19 record and is the No. 4 seed out of the West Region. The Warriors faced the Trailblazers Dec. 29 in the second round of a holiday tournament at Clackamas CC in Oregon City, Ore., and came away with a 91-67 victory.
However, assuming Walla Walla wins that game there’s a very real chance the Warriors will meet an Edmonds team in Sunday’s quarterfinals that manhandled them twice during the regular season. The Tritons handed WWCC its first loss of the season, 92-70, in a Dec. 15 game in Edmonds and then romped to an 85-50 victory when the teams met in a Dec. 30 rematch on the final day of the Clackamas tourney.
While there’s no denying the Warriors would like another shot at the Tritons, Reinland’s not worried about his players looking past Centralia.
“Our guys know that they have to focus on Centralia,” the coach said. “Besides, Edmonds has got to get past Linn-Benton and that is not going to be easy.”
Linn-Benton is the No. 2 seed out of the South Region and finished 20-9 during the regular season. Edmonds, despite those two lopsided non-league wins over Walla Walla, finished third in the North Region and is also 20-9.
Edmonds and Linn-Benton square off in Saturday’s noon game that precedes the WWCC-Centralia contest.
The Warriors are led by sophomore guard Landon Radliff, who is averaging right at 20 points a game. Freshman Damen Thacker and sophomore Brandon Porter are also double-figure scorers at 16 and 12 points, respectively.
Freshman post Jake Albright is the team’s rebounding leader at close to eight boards a game and sophomore Gary Engstrom averages six rebounds. Radliff is the team’s assist leader at 4.5 per game.
Walla Walla experienced a pair of setbacks midway through the league season when freshman guard Marcus McKone, the team’s valuable sixth man, sustained a season-ending knee injury and sophomore forward Kendall Watson was dismissed from the team for rules violations.
“What hurts us the most is our depth,” Reinland said. “Foul trouble has become a bigger issue than it used to be and so is guys getting tired.
“We’re asking more of Damen Thacker and Brandon Porter, and everyone else has to step up a little bit. Trace Tiller (6-2 sophomore guard) has done a nice job for us and Jared Anderson (6-5 freshman forward) has come in and done a nice job taking Kendall Watson’s place. We have some capable guys.”
This year’s team is not as explosive on offense as last year’s NWAC championship squad, Reinland said. But this year’s Warriors are better on the defensive end of the floor.
“We are the third- or fourth-ranked defense in the NWAC in points allowed,” Reinland said. “And that tells me that we are probably the top team because we play so fast.
“Our guys play a lot of defense because we don’t slow it down on offense. We don’t slow it down on offense to hold people down, we play up tempo. That is pretty impressive and it is what has won for this team.”
In fact, WWCC’s 22-7 season record might be misleading, the coach believes.
“Other than the two Edmonds losses, we lost to Wenatchee by one at Wenatchee, lost in overtime at Clackamas and lost in overtime at Spokane,” Reinland said as he reviewed his team’s seven defeats. “We lost at the buzzer in Yakima and we lost by three points to Treasure Valley at home when we had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to tie.
“We have been real close to almost a miraculous season.”