Few teams in the Pac-12 Conference have been mired in a losing streak like the one that’s followed Washington State’s basketball team for the past 22 days.
Not only can the Washington Huskies relate, they can offer their in-state rivals optimism there’s light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
While six teams in the conference have yet to lose a sixth game this season, Washington State, Washington and Arizona State all know what it feels like to lose six in a row. The Huskies (2-7, 3-11) recently climbed out of their slump, and the Cougars (2-7, 9-7) hope to make a long-awaited breakthrough Sunday when the teams meet at 5 p.m. at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Once Pac-12 pundits got a thorough look at UW, most rubber-stamped the Huskies for a last-place finish. Mike Hopkins’ team opened the season with 11 losses in 12 games, dropping games not only to No. 2 Baylor and Arizona, but also UC Riverside and Montana. Hopkins’ vaunted zone defense allowed 80 points or more on seven occasions – and gave up 90 three times – and a UW team that often struggled to produce offense last season with NBA draft picks Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels predictably struggled more without those two in the fold.
But recently, many of those pundits may be reconsidering their projections. The Huskies discovered something in a five-point loss to the conference’s top team, UCLA, then parlayed it into consecutive wins against Colorado and Utah.
“They tweaked their zone. It looked like they’re playing a little matchup,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “They showed zone, played matchup against Utah and a little bit of the same against Colorado. I think they settled in.”
The defensive shifts made a slight difference for a team that had allowed 87.1 ppg in its past eight contests, but skeptics may also point to the fact the Huskies were fortunate to get a career high from Marcus Tsohonis (27 points) against Colorado, followed by a career high from Jamal Bey (28) against Utah. Tsohonis or Bey don’t average double digits, but their recent eruptions warranted attention from UW’s next opponent.
“Bey has really come on, and then they have weapons like Tsohonis off the bench,” Smith said. “So they’re hard to guard one-on-one, and the bigs, I think, are good. So they started to settle in, I think they started to shorten up their lineup. They were probably trying to play nine or 10 guys and they weren’t together, they weren’t cohesive. It seems like they’ve kind of figured some things out.”
As the Huskies began to find their footing, the Cougars lost theirs, dropping seven of their past eight games, including each of their past six. Four of those six came at USC, UCLA, Stanford and Colorado – teams that have combined to go 26-2 in home games this season. In WSU’s most recent loss, at Colorado, the Cougars played without the conference’s third-leading scorer, Isaac Bonton, who was out with the flu.
“We hate losing, so we all want to get back on the winning side of things, so we just can’t wait to get another opportunity to play and win,” freshman guard TJ Bamba said after a 70-58 loss at Colorado. “That’s all we’re focused on right now.”
The Cougars had lost four consecutive games to the Huskies before picking up a pair of wins last year. Less than two years into his tenure in Pullman, Smith’s track record against UW is strong, but that’s also true of his record against teams from the Pacific Northwest. The Cougars are 12-0 in such games.
The game’s most intriguing matchup should come in the backcourt, where Noah Williams and Bonton, both Pacific Northwest natives, will face off against UW’s Quade Green and Bey. Green, the former Kentucky point guard, was ineligible for both UW-WSU games last year but leads UW in scoring (15.4 ppg), assists (3.6 apg) and steals (1.2).
Williams, a Seattle native , has scored in double figures each of the past four games and has become a threat from beyond the arc, making 15 of his last 26 (57%) 3-pointers. Other than a four-point showing against Utah, Bonton has scored in double figures every game this season and averages 18.0 ppg.
“Well, they’ve obviously got an incredible backcourt,” Hopkins said of WSU. “They’ve got a really, really good basketball coach who has them believing, and they beat us twice last year. To represent the state of Washington and having the Cougars be really good and us trying to be a great team, it’s great for Washington state basketball.”
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