PULLMAN – Home sweeps and road splits.
That’s often the rule of thumb for Pac-12 basketball coaches when they open their conference schedule, reckoning if their team can win almost every game it plays on its own court, and go 50-50 on the road – give or take a road win here, a home loss there – it’ll probably finish with anywhere from 10-14 league wins.
Laying out the blueprint is one thing, sticking to it is another.
For Ernie Kent and Washington State, winning outside of Pullman in 2018-19 has been mission impossible. After a pair of losses at Oregon State and Oregon, the Cougars (8-12, 1-6) dropped to 0-7 in true road games and 0-12 in games played away from the Palouse. They haven’t played in a single-digit road game in Pac-12 play and their five defeats have come by a margin of 20.2 points.
But in a season that’s becoming more about the silver linings, WSU can still fall back on its play at Beasley Coliseum. The level of competition considered, the Cougars are still 8-1 there and have two more opportunities at home this week, hosting UCLA (11-9, 4-3) on Wednesday (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) and USC (12-8, 5-2) on Saturday (4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
A home split would suffice for a WSU team that’s already fallen six games behind first place in the Pac-12 through seven games played.
The Bruins haven’t lived up to their preseason billing. A 15-point home loss to Liberty capped a four-game skid in Devember, prompting athletic director Dan Guerrero to terminate coach Steve Alford midway through his sixth season in charge.
The Bruins recovered to win their first three Pac-12 games under interim coach Murray Bartow, then dropped three in a row. UCLA regained some of that momentum in a 90-69 win over Arizona at Pauley Pavilion in a game sophomore guard Kris Wilkes scored 34 points.
Wilkes is the league’s third-leading scorer, at 17.8 points per game, but freshman center Moses Brown might be more concerning for a Cougar team that boasts one of the league’s smallest starting fives and faces a UCLA team oozing with length and athleticism.
Brown, from Queens, New York, is fairly springy at 7-foot-1 and sits near the top of the Pac-12’s rebounding leaderboard with 8.9 per game.
Asked Tuesday during his media availability how the Cougars will match up with Brown, Kent responded, “Whew. Have you stand on top of (Ahmed Ali). … You don’t realize how big they are, long, athletic they are until they get here.”
The Cougars will look to recapture some of the shooting that allowed them to grab a four-point halftime lead against Oregon in what eventually turned into a 20-point loss. The ball found the way into the basket 17 times on just 22 attempts in the first half (77.3 percent), but the percentages evened out in the second half, when WSU made eight baskets and shot 33 percent from the field.
“I felt like our whole team was really comfortable in the first half, in fact it’s the best basketball we’ve played offensively in a Pac-12 game this year just in terms of our ability to move the ball, shoot in the rhythm, make the extra pass,” Kent said. “… Then in the second half of the game, it becomes contagious when you knock a team out of rhythm. You take a bad look, or a hurried shot or you don’t make that extra pass. It can look the other way. That was the tale of the two halves.”