LAS VEGAS – Before Washington State’s 2019-20 season started, the Cougars staged two closed-door scrimmages against opponents from the Big Sky Conference.
Perhaps it’s a positive sign the Cougars did well in both – blowing past eventual Big Sky regular-season champion Eastern Washington 96-75 before beating Montana 65-63 – because they’ll encounter a similar situation Thursday night against Arizona State in the Pac-12 Tournament.
All four quarterfinal games at T-Mobile Arena will be played in front of particularly sparse crowds after the Pac-12 decided to restrict the general public from attending, allowing only essential staff, TV network partners, credentialed media, and limited family and friends inside the building.
The Pac-12’s decision to implement attendance protocols coincides with the rapid spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus, which has now caused the NBA to suspend all operations and other conference tournaments to restrict fan access. Two days ago, the Ivy League announced it was cancelling the 2020 conference tournament altogether.
“It’ll be like our scrimmage against Eastern Washington,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Or Montana.”
CJ Elleby, who led WSU with 30 points in Wednesday’s 82-68 win over Colorado, said the unprecedented situation means the Cougars will have to supply their own energy.
“We’ll have to bring the energy there,” Elleby said. “We’ll have family and close friends. But the energy comes from within the locker room, and we’ll have to rely on each other for that.”
It’s something the Cougars have some practice doing, too, and not only though their preseason scrimmages. WSU’s average home attendance is the lowest in the Pac-12 and sits at just 3,165. While seven Pac-12 teams have brought in more than 100,000 total fans to games this season –topped by Arizona at 232,114 – the Cougars are at the bottom of the league.
Broken, not busted
Nursing a broken finger, Jeff Pollard returned from a two-game absence to play 21 minutes off the bench and score six points on 3 of 3 shooting for the Cougars.
Pollard was expected to play in a limited role, though Smith wasn’t sure how effective his senior forward would be playing through injury. On Tueday, Smith said Pollard’s finger would require surgery once the season ended.
“It’s just another thing,” Pollard said. “Senior season, going into my last Pac-12 Tournament, I was like there’s no way that I’m not playing if I can walk and run.”
Pollard’s left hand was heavily taped by WSU Director of Athletic Medicine before the game and the senior, who’d started in every game he played this season up until Wednesday, came off the Cougars bench almost five minutes into the game.
“I tried to keep it as normal as possible and just try to get it as functional as possible,” Pollard said. “Definitely wrapped up a lot right now.”
“Shout out to Dr. Henry,” Smith said.
Pollard continued: “She helped get it all ready to go. But like I said, as long as I’ve got a hand and I can run, I’m playing.”
Rubber match on deck
The 11th-seeded Cougars and fourth-seed Sun Devils will settle their season series Thursday at 8:30 p.m., perhaps fittingly on a neutral court.
Courtesy of Elleby’s game-winning 3-pointer, WSU beat ASU 67-65 in the first matchup played at Beasley Coliseum, but the Sun Devils got the best of the Cougars in Tempe last Saturday, winning 83-74.
In the loss, Elleby and starting point guard Isaac Bonton combined to go just 7 of 44 from the field and scored 21 points. Bonton had 11 turnovers.
“I’m not sure how that goes,” Smith said. “We think it’s pretty fresh on us. I don’t think there will be any major adjustments. But I thought we played about a 10-minute stretch we played really well against them and got ourselves back in the game. They’re a really good team. And we’re 1-1. It’s the rubber match, it will be a great opportunity for us.”
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