WALLA WALLA - Top-ranked Tacoma, with its sparkling 23-2 record, and Eastern Division champion Big Bend, 21-4, are the logical favorites in the 16-team men's NWAACC Championships basketball tournament that gets underway Saturday in the Toyota Center in Kennewick.
After that, it's a proverbial crapshoot in what Walla Walla coach Jeff Reinland describes as "a year of parity" in the NWAACC.
The other 14 tournament qualifiers enter play Saturday with records ranging from six losses to 13. Seven teams in the field have suffered double-digit defeats, and one of the entries, Linn-Benton, is under .500 at 11-13.
"The NWAACC has been very even all year long," said Reinland, who guided his Warriors to a 14-11 record overall, a fourth-place finish in the East and WWCC's second straight appearance in the tournament and its third in four years. Last year's Warriors placed fourth in Kennewick.
"I just think it's wide open," Reinland said of the field. "I would pick Tacoma as the favorite based on all the teams that I've seen. I would also put Bellevue up there, and Big Bend and Spokane as well. And there are some others - Pierce is good, Highline is good, even Clackamas. Everyone there is going to be good."
Bellevue, Walla Walla's first-round opponent at 8 p.m. Saturday, won the Northern Division title and comes into the Toyota Center with a 19-6 record.
"I saw them in person twice early in the year in a tournament," Reinland said of the Bulldogs. "In one game they played not so well, in the other they played really well.
"They are athletic, they are big and they are from Bellevue, which means they have a lot of players at their disposal. But they are beatable."
It will all depend on the Warriors' ability to knock down shots, Reinland said.
"We play hard, we have pretty solid kids, but we haven't shot the ball the way we normally do," Reinland said of his team's season. "We've had a lot of chances to be a little better than we are, but we couldn't get the shots to fall."
And that goes for free-throw shooting as well, the coach added.
"We are 62 percent from the line on the season, and we shot 58 percent during league play," Reinland said. "On an average year we should shoot 70 percent or even higher. I think 70-to-75 percent is a good goal."
The problem, Reinland said, has been getting the right players to the line.
"We have one of those funny teams," he said, though he wasn't laughing.
"We have some guys who can shoot free throws, but they are for the most part perimeter shooters who don't put it on the deck and draw a lot of fouls, so they don't get to the line. And our athletic guys who do get to the line are not our best shooters. It's just one of those teams."
Sophomore guard Jason Smith has been the Warriors' most dependable shooter and leads the team with a 19.1 scoring average. But even his production is off from a year ago.
"He hasn't shot it as well as he did as a freshman, but he's getting keyed on every night," Reinland said. "It's remarkable that he has scored 19 a game."
Aaron Corsi, a 6-7 sophomore post, averages 16.3 points per game and also leads the Warriors in rebounding with nine per game.
Ryan Shulz is a third WWCC sophomore who scores in double figures. And though he's only 6-1, most of his 12.5 points per game are the result of his post-up moves, Reinland said.
"He has some good post moves," the coach said, "He has a jump hook, he can drive to the basket. He's as good as we have."
The Warriors get additional scoring from sophomore Jordan Steele (6 points per game) and a trio of freshmen, Michael Crane (8.4), Jon Payne (8.2) and Max Stennard (7).
"As a committee, we are doing OK," Reinland said. "It's just not the typical prototypical WWCC team where we have guards busting out of 21 points or more a game.
"Our 3-point shooting is down as well, to the tune of three or four a game. And I don't think we've shot it as well, either. We're at 39 percent and usually we are a little higher than that."
Walla Walla split with Yakima and lost twice each to Big Bend and Spokane during Eastern Division play. The Warriors also faced five NWAACC qualifiers during non-league games, defeating Mount Hood and Linn-Benton and losing to Tacoma, Clackamas and Peninsula.
"We're right in there," Reinland said. "We can play with all of these people.
"Peninsula beat us by three points, and we lost at the buzzer in Clackamas. Tacoma beat us by 19, but that game was much closer than that. We were down 10 at the half and within six points with eight minutes to go."
So Reinland enters his 10th tournament in 18 years as the head coach at WWCC hopeful that his team can achieve something beginning Saturday that it hasn't achieved all season long - a four-game winning streak.
During the course of 25 regular-season games, the Warriors won three consecutive games on two occasions but could never extend the streak to four. Likewise, they twice endured three-game losing skids but prevented a fourth straight defeat each time.
WWCC's 14-11 overall record includes a 7-7 mark in the division. The Warriors were 7-3 on their home floor and 7-8 on the road. For the most part, it was a season of two steps forward, two steps back.
"That," Reinland said, "is a pretty apt description. But I am really proud of how we have battled the way we have just to get to the tournament. Especially coming out of our division.
"I think there are seven teams in the East that deserve to be in the tournament. Treasure Valley only won one game, but even they weren't that bad. As for the other seven, with three or four games to go everyone had a shot to get in."
Parity is the East is perhaps a reflection of parity in the NWAACC. And it could lead to some interesting games beginning Saturday in the Toyota Center.
At Toyota Center
Peninsula (18-7) vs. Yakima (15-10), 10 a.m.
Tacoma (23-2) vs. Chemeketa (14-12), 4 p.m.
Clackamas (19-6) vs. Clark (15-10), 6 p.m.
Spokane (19-7) vs. Skagit Valley (14-11), noon
Mount Hood (15-10) vs. Highline (18-7), 8 a.m.
Big Bend (21-4) vs. Whatcom (19-6), 2 p.m.
Bellevue (19-6) vs. Walla Walla (14-11), 8 p.m.
Pierce (20-6) vs. Linn-Benton (11-13), 10 p.m.