PULLMAN – The House of Coug a house of cards? Saturday seemed the likely afternoon to find out.
The tipping point, if there was going to be one, had arrived.
Never mind the silly speedbump topography of the Pacific-10 Conference basketball standings. Even had it lost on Saturday, Washington State still would have been within a relative whisper of the summit in a race in which the placements couldn’t be less meaningful anyway. But belief can erode under even less stress than this, and an entire season along with it.
DeAngelo Casto felt it, and obviously felt the need to do something about it.
“You know you’ve just lost on your home court (Thursday) and if you lose again, not only are you behind in the standings but you’re also going on the road,” said the Cougars’ sophomore forward. “And you don’t want that – or being on the bottom of the Pac, especially the way the Pac’s been going.”
Well, here’s how this part of the Pac went Saturday: the team in the midst of its sorriest stretch of basketball manhandled Arizona, the only team in the league to have won four of its last five.
The oddness of Wazzu’s 78-60 victory can be fully realized by noting that Casto, no better than the Cougs’ fourth option lately, was the focus of the offense and, indeed, took more shots than Klay Thompson; that Steven Bjornstad – not even accorded the distinction of “key reserve” in WSU’s game prospectus – was off the bench in barely five minutes while Reggie Moore was on it within three, and that freshman Brock Motum scored 10 points playing more minutes than he had in the previous 10 Pac-10 games combined.
Maybe all that didn’t have to happen for the Cougs to win, but whatever works. Coach Ken Bone will crib offense from CYO ball – or Cirque de Soleil – if it’ll keep his team in the hunt.
“The last thing we talked about before we left the locker room is that there needs to be a sense of urgency,” Bone said. “but I didn’t bring it up because we’d lost three in a row.”
But that made it urgent enough.
Especially in the manner the Cougs had lost them – out-toughed at UCLA, imploding at Washington, cut up by Arizona State. Thompson, who stretched nets through November and December, had misplaced his jump shot in the folds of the defensive attention he’s attracted. And the Cougars hadn’t played much of that themselves lately.
That’s what Bone based his quick hook on Saturday, and the message couldn’t have been more clear.
“When you’re coming in for someone who’s missed a defensive assignment,” Casto said, “you don’t want to get yanked out, either. I think that edge helped.”
Speaking of an edge, no one had a sharper one than Casto, who had a career-high 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
The 6-foot-8 Ferris grad knows what he is: rebounder, shot-blocker, consummate garbageman – meant in only the best way. He also knows that on occasion he needs to be more, and perhaps another big night against the Wildcats (who gave up his last double-figure game) suggests he can do it against others.
“It’s on me – some games I’ll get some touches and I’ll get a little scared,” he admitted. “Today it was more like, ‘I’m going to get touches and I’m going to go at them.’ Because we need an inside presence as much as an outside presence.”
True enough, though Bone hinted at a fool’s-gold side, too, and stressed the ongoing need to get Thompson straightened out “to extend the defense, to get the ball inside and for penetration, too.”
So even after what may well have been their best collective performance of the season, the slope is slippery. And it’s not as if anyone expects the Cougs to wind up atop the Pac-10 heap – and that is the proper term, no? Still, they’re now five victories away from 20, and no matter the state of the Pac-10 or the squishiness of Wazzu’s nonconference schedule, that would be a remarkable accomplishment for a team with one upperclassman making the transition from the tightly wound Bennett era to Bone’s preferred I-can’t-drive-55 style.
It could have gone completely south on Saturday, but DeAngelo Casto and a 10-deep rotation didn’t allow it.
“The league this year is good for a young team,” Casto said. “You know there’s hope, you know you can compete. We had a good, solid win here.
“Who knows what’s going to happen across the Pac?”
Can’t read those cards right now. For the Cougs, they’re still standing.