The scripture coming from the athletic director’s office at Washington State is that Spokane is important to the Cougars.
Well, OK. If he says so.
Except that when the basketball team played in Seattle, the crowd was allowed to shower hosannas on the splashy new football savior. No such treat was afforded the devoted who trekked to the Spokane Arena on Thursday night – but maybe that’s being saved for New Year’s Eve.
Even more egregious, the basketball team didn’t show up here, either.
“I know we’re better than that,” coach Ken Bone said in what passes for his slow-burn after the Cougars were pummeled by Oregon 92-75 in a rather inauspicious curtain-opener for the Pac-12.
“I probably wouldn’t be as frustrated if this was who we are, if it was ‘You know, we’re just not very good and this is what has been happening and is going to continue to happen. Maybe I’d see the writing on the wall and say, ‘That’s part of the deal – we’re in for a rough year.’ ”
“I know we’re better than that,” he insisted.
Still, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so it’s a tossup how many of the 9,889 on hand this night will return on Saturday to see if the Cougs can prove it in the do-over against Oregon State.
The dangers of assessing a team’s worth off one night of basketball are obvious whether the calendar reads December or March – though in March, the scoreboard gets to make the final call.
In December, it’s still negotiable.
So what is it that convinces Bone that this was just an accident, a hiccup, a page out of the Nick Holt defensive manual?
“The last month of the season,” he said.
True enough, the Cougars finished the nonconference portion of the schedule with a flourish – six straight victories, only one of them a contest. The caveat is that the heavyweight among those six was Eastern Washington, with an RPI of 113 – and the Eagles were saying the same thing that night that the Cougars were offering up this one.
So was that streak fool’s gold? Probably.
Is Bone on the money? Probably.
Still, these Cougars were picked to finish in the lower quartile of the Pac-12 – also probably.
They are willing, but also flawed, limited and suddenly out of sorts again.
Against the Ducks, they were helpless to defend the interior, so much so that Charlie Enquist – the pleasant development with a pair of double-doubles during the win streak – barely cracked double-figure minutes, and the scorebook not at all.
“Our post defense has been our Achilles’ heel off and on all season,” admitted Bone.
As a result, an apparently miscast seven-points-a-game part-timer named Olu Ashaolu – a graduate transfer from Louisiana Tech, where he was considerably better than that – went off for 23 points and 10 rebounds, the sort of opponent breakout that usually happens against the club across town.
Bone noted that “we tried to go small and matchup with them because they were slicing us up.” But the Ducks shot 70 percent no matter who the Cougs had in there, and on the other end, “We had guys playing out of position and it hurt our execution.
“Our plan was to run more sets,” Bone said, “and we were not able to execute those sets as well as I’d hoped.”
Perhaps because there are a couple of Cougs who don’t seem to be interested in running sets.
In the meantime, an Oregon team that had scored just 55 points in its last outing against Stephen F. Austin and 54 against Virginia had that many by halftime. Ashaolu credited coach Dana Altman with some “tweaks” that got him closer to the basket to operate, the unspoken flip side being something of a what-took-him- so-long?
So the Ducks found an offensive clue in their Christmas stocking, or the Cougs found a hole in theirs.
“They punched first, second, third and fifth and we never seemed to fight back,” said freshman DeVonte Lacy, the only Wazzu bright spot with a 5-for-6 night from 3-point range. “I don’t think that’s the team we are.”
So who are they?
“I know we’re not a great team,” Bone offered. “I just know we’re better than we showed tonight.”
OK. If he says so.