With three consecutive losses, Washington State’s basketball team might be limping into Pac-12 Conference play this week, but at least it’s only a figurative term for the now-healthy Cougars as they travel to Seattle for the league opener Saturday against Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena.
At this point, even those types of silver linings are important for a WSU team that went 7-6 – seven wins at home and all six losses on the road – albeit playing a nonconference schedule that ESPN ranks No. 336 in the country.
The Pac-12 schedule that awaits the Cougars won’t be as thorny as it’s been in the past. The conference doesn’t have a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and the only one receiving votes, Arizona State, stumbled Thursday in its Pac-12 opener against Utah.
The league won just 61 percent of its nonconference games – played mostly against lower-tier foes – and at this rate, it might struggle to get more than one at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Nonetheless, a WSU team that only faced two opponents ranked in the top 100 of ESPN’s BPI rankings through nonconference play has to see two more of those in the first week and a half of Pac-12 play, and a handful of others over the next two-plus months.
It isn’t exactly a minefield the Cougars are heading into, but the road should get tougher – and that’s exactly where this Pac-12 season starts. On the road.
WSU (7-6) visits cross-state rival UW (9-4) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Networks) before spending the following week in the mountains, at Colorado (9-4) on Thursday and Utah (7-6) on Jan. 12.
“I think they’re as prepared as they can be,” said Ernie Kent, WSU’s fifth-year coach. “You can’t really simulate the crowds and the arenas, the bigger, better, stronger players. You have to go through that. But the good thing is, we have enough veteran players that can help them through that.”
The Cougars have something they didn’t have the first two months of the season: a clean bill of health.
After picking up all sorts of nicks and bruises through the first 13 games of the 2018-19 season – a hip contusion here, a concussion there – WSU is bringing a fully healthy roster to Seattle.
Senior forward Robert Franks, who’s 21st in the nation at 22.1 points per game, sat out of a 79-71 loss to Santa Clara because of a hip contusion and is “day to day,” according to Kent, although the coach says Franks “should be ready to play” come Saturday .
Viont’e Daniels (concussion) and Isaiah Wade (ankle) have missed time this season, but both expect to be in the fold against UW.
The trio of Franks, Daniels and Wade accounts for 35.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. Daniels’ 4.4 assists per game lead the team.
“Five of those six losses were without a starter due to injury out on the floor,” Kent said. “And yet we look at them, they’re by a combined six points per game on average. You lose a game and we look back on tape and we’re right there with 3 minutes to go in all the games. Sometimes the games are tied when regulation ends and all that, too.
“All in all, I’m pleased with how our new guys have performed and pleased with how this team has performed knowing we had one piece missing. But yet at the same time, we definitely felt we left some games on the floor.”
Mike Hopkins’ Huskies opened the year at No. 25 in the country but quickly fell out of the national rankings after a 22-point loss at Auburn. Three of UW’s four defeats came to teams ranked inside the top 13 at the time: No. 11 Auburn, No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 13 Virginia Tech.
The Huskies have the Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, 6-foot-5 senior guard Matisse Thybulle, and two players averaging double figures in senior forward Noah Dickerson (15.3 ppg) and sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell (17.1).
“The challenges are going to be they’re a veteran basketball team, we’ve got new guys we’re playing with,” Kent said. “We’re going to have to really play a smart, heady basketball game and making sure their experience is not the factor in the game with us. We’ve got to make sure we can match that with our intelligence in the game.”