PULLMAN – A defender overcommitted high above the key and suddenly a lane to the hoop as wide as the Brisbane River opened up for Brock Motum.
Almost as spectacular as the soaring, left-handed jam that ensued was the scream that punctuated it – almost unnerving coming from a relative basketball stoic.
“Dunks are few and far between for me,” said Washington State’s junior forward, a bit sheepishly, “so when it happens, I get pretty excited.”
Yes, well, exciting is welcome.
The singular exciting thing about Cougars basketball at the moment is the development arc of Motum, who even as WSU tries to shinny out of the bottom third of the Pac-12 is growing into a top-tier talent.
As sheer basketball amusement, there wasn’t a great deal to recommend in the Cougars’ 60-53 victory over USC on Thursday night at Friel Court – nothing to approach the thrills of the previous homestand, in any case. Trojans coach Kevin O’Neil – who looks more like Larry David than Larry David does – has endured a truly Job-like stretch of curses, and if the school hasn’t been moved to drop basketball yet there were occasions here when it seemed like an OK idea.
And yet there were his worthies with not one, not two, but three different chances to make it a one-possession game with more than 20 seconds to play.
That the Trojans whiffed on all three fat pitches was telling, as was the fact that the Cougars had even this much trouble with a six-win team that dressed only six scholarship players. But, of course, Wazzu has had its own trials, the most recent being the loss of shoot-em-up guard Faisal Aden to a season-ending knee injury.
But you don’t have to look far for a blossom among the bramble.
With 26 points against the Trojans, Motum climbed atop the Pac-12 scoring chart in conference play, his average an even 20 a game. On this night, he made 9 of 11 shots, which besides the thunder included a 3-pointer, a straightaway bank from about 16 feet – OK, maybe a little lucky there – and assorted layups, including something of a pet move, a counterintuitive spin after a pass into the post that left whatever luckless Trojan trying to guard him flatfooted.
“He’s a little unorthodox,” allowed WSU coach Ken Bone, “and that catches people off guard once in a while.”
If not for a couple of struggling nights in losses to Colorado and Arizona, Motum would be making 68 percent of his shots in Pac-12 play, rather unheard-of efficiency for a player who gets as many touches as he does.
You knew he was going to see the ball a lot against the undersized Trojans, but “it will be that way every game,” Bone said.
“On Saturday, even with (UCLA’s) size, it’s still get the ball to Brock.”
It is not necessarily the easiest thing to see your game coming into bloom at the same time your team struggles with consistency and rhythm and the mere notion of winning on the road. To get a career-high 34 last weekend at Arizona State and see the Cougars kick one away took some of the shine off, to be sure.
“All you can do,” Motum said, “is keep trying to do the things that will help us win games. That’s really all that matters.”
But, certainly, what needed to happen for the Cougs this year was for Motum to become the player he wasn’t asked to be his first couple years after Wazzu lured him up from his native Australia.
Ben Johnson, the Cougars assistant who recruits Australia, noted that Motum returned home last summer and polished his game against smaller, quicker players while hitting the weight room to put on extra strength to deal with the league’s grunts.
“And I’ve always believed the Pac-12 is a league for juniors and seniors,” he said. “Unless your name is Kevin Love and you’re a bona fide NBA lottery guy, it’s a league for veteran players, upper classmen who have developed the confidence to play at a higher level.”
And sometimes that confidence comes not only from your own play, but from a longer leash.
“From the get-go, he knows he’s going to play a lot,” said Bone, “and if he makes a mistake he’s not going to come out – whereas last year, I was quick to yank him because we always had DeAngelo (Casto) and at that time Abe Lodwick was ahead of him.
“He has a lot of freedom. It’s not like he has to go down and sit on the block because he’s the tallest guy. We allow him to step out and play on the perimeter, which lets him put it on the deck and get to the rim and shoot 3s, too.”
Sometimes he’ll even give them something to scream about. And him, too.