PULLMAN – The Cougars picked up their first Pac-12 Conference road win last Friday at Washington, winning 78-74 at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Sweet as that was, in order for Washington State to position itself with a good seed – and favorable matchup – in next week’s conference tournament, one more road win could be pivotal.
With two games left in the regular season, there may not be much basketball left, but there’s still plenty of wiggle room within the conference standings, which could withstand a few more shakeups before the Pac-12 Tournament begins March 11.
Washington State, at 15-14 overall and 6-10 in league play, is at the center of that. It’s highly unlikely, but if the Cougars win twice in the desert this week, they’ll be in contention for the No. 8 seed in Las Vegas. Losing twice could send WSU all the way down to the No. 11 seed, barring other results. The Cougars are best set up to earn the No. 9 or 10 seed.
“I think if anyone’s been a true Pac-12 fan, they’ve been excited about the competition and the parity,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “So I think going into Vegas, everyone feels good about their chances. Want to be playing well going into that, have some confidence. … We’ll see how it goes, how it shakes out.”
Four seeds and five opponents are mathematically in play for the Cougars, who’ll be aiming to win a game in the conference tournament for the first time since 2009. Forget about the seeding procedures for the moment and focus on the potential matchups for WSU at T-Mobile Arena.
From most favorable (5) to least favorable (1), we list each of the teams the Cougars could face one week from now.
As the Cougars have under Smith, the Golden Bears under first-year coach Mark Fox have surpassed many of the expectations set for them when the season started. Matt Bradley, the conference’s reigning player of the week, is a shoo-in for posteason Pac-12 awards, and totaled 26 points and 10 rebounds the first time Cal and WSU played. The Cougars led by as many as 14 points in that game, but scored only three points in the final 6 minutes of the first half. Tony Miller was limited in that game before leaving for good with an injury and Marvin Cannon didn’t play either. Point guard Isaac Bonton wasn’t available for the second matchup. The Cougars should go into the tournament fully healthy and certainly would relish a third crack at Fox’s Bears.
Favorability rating: 5
WSU and Colorado played once in the regular season and the Buffs’ 78-56 win in Boulder – considered the conference’s toughest road setting – while the Cougars were missing Miller and Cannon probably isn’t reflective of what a rematch would look like. Plus, that score isn’t too indicative of how competitive the first game was. Bonton hit a 3-pointer to close the score to 54-50 with 12 minutes left before Colorado went on a run to win handily. The Buffaloes have sufficient experience on the roster that would seemingly help them in a postseason tournament setting, but they’ve also played some of their worst basketball these past few weeks, losing their first home game to UCLA before tripping up at Cal and Stanford. If the Cougars manage to keep Lucas Siewert and Evan Battey off the boards, they’d give themselves a chance in the second matchup.
Favorability rating: 3
Both teams were missing an important piece when WSU and USC played three weeks ago in Los Angeles: Bonton for the Cougars and Onyeka Okongwu for the Trojans. Of the NBA-bound big men Jeff Pollard, and to a lesser extent, Miller, have faced this season – a group that also includes Washington’s Isaiah Stewart and Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji – Okongwu seemed to give the WSU post the biggest headaches, scoring 27 points, hauling down 12 rebounds and blocking three shots at Beasley Coliseum earlier this year. Even with Okongwu dominating, the Cougars hung around and trimmed USC’s lead to seven points with under 2 minutes left. Don’t reach much into the second matchup. The Cougars were physically, mentally and emotionally fatigued after losing in overtime to UCLA two nights earlier, and missed 22 straight 3-pointers en route to a 70-51 loss. If WSU drew USC in Vegas, the Cougars would probably lament it wasn’t Cal or Colorado, but they’d also be thankful to skip Arizona or Stanford.
Favorability rating: 2
A 1 could turn into a 2 on the favorability rating if the Cougars prove they can compete with or upset the Wildcats on Thursday at the McKale Center. But the first matchup and a variety of other factors appear to show that only one other team in the conference would offer a more daunting test than the Wildcats, who typically bring the largest contingent of fans to Sin City for the tournament – even in down years like this one. The Cougars, relatively speaking, were healthy when they hosted the Wildcats earlier this season, and still managed their lowest point total of the season, shooting just 20 of 54 in a 66-49 loss. Arizona manged to win comfortably on a night that saw the freshman tandem of Nnaji and Nico Mannion score just 24 points on 9-of-24 shooting from the field. The Wildcats have underachieved given their preseason hype and on-paper talent, plus they enter Thursday’s game against the Cougars on a three-game slide. Sean Miller’s club is certainly capable of a letdown, but the Wildcats are also capable of getting by on their talent alone – especially against the teams lingering near the bottom of the conference.
Favorability rating: 1
Winning at least once this week, and getting a Colorado win at Utah, guarantees the Cougars won’t open the conference tournament against the team that’s been most impenetrable – not just this season, but for most of the last decade. Setting aside WSU’s two losses to the Cardinal in 2019-20, which came by a combined 34 points, the Cougars have lost 13 of their last 14 against Stanford. While the Cougars in the past have upstaged ranked Arizona, Oregon and UCLA teams with better talent, they’ve struggled to compete with Stanford teams that are fundamentally sound and often defend as well as anyone in the conference. The Cardinal have found multiple ways to beat the Cougars this season, pounding the ball inside to score 50 points in the paint during an 88-62 win at Maples Pavilion before connecting on 11 3-pointers – and at a 47 percent clip – to bury WSU 75-57 at Beasley Coliseum in the latest matchup. The way the Pac-12 standings are shaping up, it could be difficult to avoid playing Stanford for a third time. Beating the Wildcats or Sun Devils would be a great start, though.
Favorability rating: 1/2
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