LAS VEGAS – The parity and top-to-bottom unpredictability of this year’s Pac-12 basketball season will be trumpeted with great frequency this week, as the conference tournament begins this afternoon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
But the games played last week that capped the regular season might better illustrate the point.
Utah, Oregon State and Washington State entered the final week of the season as the bottom three teams in the conference standings. As of last Wednesday, they had combined to win eight Pac-12 games.
Then Utah beat Oregon State. WSU snapped a 9-game losing streak and hammered conference champion UCLA. Utah upset third-place Oregon. OSU bounced back to knock off Colorado on its senior night in Boulder. And, of course, the Cougars completed their first home sweep of the Los Angeles schools since 1993 by dominating Southern California.
That’s five wins in a four-day span for three teams that mostly spent the season trying to get out of their own way. And two for a WSU team that hadn’t won since January.
Washington (17-14, 9-9 Pac-12) coach Lorenzo Romar said he doesn’t necessarily believe that momentum can carry teams through the conference tournament. But,
“If there was such a thing as momentum for this tournament,” Romar said, “I’d pick (WSU) to win it, the way they played. I haven’t seen too many teams play the way they played those last two games. They were really impressive.”
So when WSU finally plays Washington Wednesday night at 8:30 – or 8:45, or 9, depending on how far behind schedule the tournament is by that point – the Cougars likely won’t be lacking for confidence against a team that has beaten them twice by a combined 9-point margin.
That’s a theme the Cougars have been harping on since their season went south several weeks ago: anyone can beat anyone.
Just like how WSU beat the conference’s first-place team (UCLA) and lost to the No. 12 seed (OSU).
“We’re not overconfident. We finished last,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “But I think we’re in a better state of mind now than we would have been if we would have been beaten two games last week.”
Their state of mind is aided by the recent play of Brock Motum, who won Pac-12 Player of the Week honors last week after averaging 25.5 points in two games, and Royce Woolridge, who scored 25 points against USC on Saturday and has emerged as WSU’s clear No. 2 scoring option.
Both players feature prominently in the key plot points surrounding today’s rematch against UW. Motum was shadowed by UW forward Desmond Simmons in each of the first two meetings, scoring 15 points the first time and 18 in Seattle last Sunday.
Simmons mostly fronts Motum and tries to deny him the ball. That’s something the Cougars are obviously expecting again.
“We’ve got some stuff to hopefully get me the ball,” Motum said. “Lots of screens, different stuff like that. So hopefully it’ll be a little different (today).”
A difference in WSU’s turnover total is likely necessary, too. The Cougars (13-18, 4-14 Pac-12) committed 18 turnovers against the Huskies last Sunday, and five of those were charged to Woolridge.
“We’ve just got to be smarter with the ball,” Woolridge said. “So when we’re running plays and stuff, make sure we execute, and when people get in us, we’ve got to make sure we can just be able to take care of the ball.”
It’s the first trip to Las Vegas for Motum, an Australian native, whose parents also made the trip.
The team was able to spend some time on the strip last night. Motum described it as “eye opening.”
“Lot of strange people on the streets, and a lot of big buildings that are unreal,” he said with a slight smile. “It’s really nice to be here.”
A 4-day stay would be nicer. But at present, WSU is worried only about surviving Wednesday.
“What I’d be most happy about is just the fact that I feel like these guys deserve as many wins as we can get,” Bone said. “They’ve been a great group. They’ve been a fun group to work with. It would just be neat to see them be able to continue their season.”