Road-weary Cougs head to USC
LOS ANGELES – DeAngelo Casto and his teammates are tired of the road. Tired of being away from friends and family, tired of hotel rooms, tired of riding buses.
They’re ready to get back to Pullman.
But not just yet. There is one more game left for Washington State to play, the sixth in a less than two weeks and the second Pac-10 game of the season.
After losing at UCLA 80-71 to open conference play Wednesday night, Casto knows this afternoon’s game at USC is crucial to the Cougars’ conference title hopes.
“It’s a different dynamic going home 2-0, 0-2 or 1-1,” the 6-foot-8 junior post said Thursday afternoon.
“Those are three different starts to a Pac-10 season. Obviously, we can’t get to 2-0, but a 1-1 start is the next best thing.
“It would be huge for our confidence, our team, to just overcome that last hump and go home with a victory.”
The Trojans offer a stern test for WSU (10-3 overall and 3-2 on the road trip that started Dec. 19 at Santa Clara and continued with a runner-up finish at Hawaii’s Diamond Head Classic) in general and Casto in particular.
USC came into conference play Wednesday night as one of the Pac-10’s hottest teams, having won four of five – the lone loss was by two points at Kansas – including wins over Texas and Tennessee. Then the Trojans struggled down the stretch against Washington and fell 73-67 in overtime.
Nikola Vucevic, a 6-foot-10 junior center, has paced the Trojans (8-6 overall, 6-2 in the Galen Center) all year and he did it again Wednesday, hitting all 14 of his free throws on the way to scoring 28 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. He leads the Pac-10 with a 9.9 rebounds-per-game average.
“He’s been around the block a little bit, he’s played in some games,” said Casto, who will bear the brunt of the responsibility guarding Vucevic as he does every time against the opponent’s big man. “He’s got experience and he’s doing what he should be doing. He’s battling and helping his team win games.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a huge test.”
Right now the resiliency of all the Cougars is being tested. The long road trip is wearing them down, according to Casto.
“There’s just so many aspects to it,” he said. “I think sometimes people forget we’re just 20-year-old kids and we have a lot that’s demanded of our body and we haven’t seen our families in a long time either.
“And I know road trips are necessary and you get through it, but even an NBA trip isn’t as long as this one.”
And it showed against the Bruins.
“There’s a mental fatigue,” Casto said, “because it seemed like, for a second, we had that game going our way. And then, somehow, they caught a little bit of momentum, a little run, and that was the game.”
Casto, scoring 9.2 points per game and averaging 5.8 rebounds, knows the core group of Cougars – he lists Klay Thompson, Marcus Capers, Reggie Moore and himself in that category – all have to play well or “it seems to have a ripple effect on the rest of the team.”
And lately Casto has found himself sitting with foul trouble, part of it due to three technical fouls in the last four games.
“The players are of a high caliber and highly competitive,” he explained, adding none of the calls were for yelling at the officials or using obscenities. “I’m the big man in the middle that’s supposed to hold it down (in there). It’s the most physical part of the game.
“And sometimes stuff happens, but I think the refs are overly sensitive to that fact.”
But he knows he has to deal with it.
“If that’s how it is, that’s how it is,” he said.
Just like conference play, where each night Casto expects a battle.
“I don’t ever see anymore going into games where there’s going to be a weak link,” Casto said. “It’s Pac-10 play.”
On the road.