Just returned from Pullman a few hours ago, and I still haven't stopped smiling.
My wife and I were two of the lucky 11,618 to witness the greatest beatdown by a WSU basketball team in the history of the WSU-UW rivalry, a 75-47 thrashing so complete in its dominance that there is literally no doubt that the Washington State Cougars are far and away the best college basketball team in the state.
During those two hours of pure ecstasy, I noticed a few things. No, this isn't going to just be a Cougar lovefest -- keep reading, Husky fans ... I've got a few thoughts on your team, too! (And, yes, they go beyond, "You stink." I promise. I'll even bold the headers so you can figure out where to skip to!)
Thoughts on the Cougars:
- This was the easiest bet I've ever won. My friend, Luke Zilly, came into my classroom on Friday, proclaiming, "Huskies by six!"
Sensing a sucker for a bad wager, I said, "Does that mean you'll give me the Cougs and six points?" His response: "Five-and-a-half." His wager? "A latte Monday morning." My response? "Let's make a latte everyday next week."
Hey, Luke: Guess I didn't really need those 5 1/2 points after all! By the way, I like my coffee from Big Foot Java -- specifically a 16 oz. triple vanilla bean latte with whipped cream. Thanks!
- This team is not a fluke. This team is really, really good -- and getting better.
Early in the year, the Cougs needed a lot of second-half magic to pull off some wins, including a late flurry to beat Gonzaga, making fans wonder how genuine their results were. Even as friends approached me for some Cougar love, I said, "Let's wait until the conference season -- the Pac-10 is really tough this year."
I thought this team was for real after it beat USC on the road following a close loss to UCLA -- after all, this wouldn't have been the first Cougar team to jump up for a game and bite a good opponent. But back-to-back great road games? That showed this team was special.
Sweeping the Arizona schools at home confirmed it (as did the acompanying national ranking), and splitting a tough road trip to the Bary Area in the newfound spotlight bolstered it. Wiping up the floor with the team that's been the best in the state over the past three years? That just put an exclamation point on it.
These guys play complete team basketball. It starts with their great team defense that's complemented sensationally by their sound team offense. They're as versatile as any team in the country with what they can do offensively and defensively, and Tony Bennett is proving that he knows how to put this team in its best position to win.
Don't be surprised if these guys make more than just an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They have the tools to make a run.
- This team has talent. I think the temptation for a lot of casual fans is to think that this is a team getting by on guts and guile. While that certainly has something to do with it, this is not a roster devoid of potential NBA players. Two in particular stick out to me.
Kyle Weaver is making a strong case for All-America consideration. Think I'm exaggerating? The 6-foot-6, 201-pound guard is averaging 11.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks, all while acting as WSU's primary ball-handler. I'd love to know how many players in the country are averaging 10 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. My guess is he's the only one.
He's got great basketball smarts -- did you see that block of Brockman? And the wraparound pass late to set up a dunk? -- and also is an above-average defender. I said early in the year that this team feeds off of Weaver's play, and he's proving me right. His first two years, he would disappear for long stretches, playing passively at times. His confidence has grown immeasurably this year, and he is the unquestioned leader of this team. Husky fans will note he plays an awful lot like Brandon Roy ...
Ivory Clark is a solid 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, but with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. Although he has a limited offensive game, he can D-up in both the post and on the perimeter and is extremely athletic. If he can improve his rebounding -- he's only averaging 4.9 a game, third on the team -- he definitely could find his way onto someone's roster.
- Brace yourselves, Husky fans. This might not get much better this year. This team has A LOT of flaws. The interior play is strong -- having Spencer Hawes yesterday might have made a difference (although probably not 28 points difference) -- but the perimeter play is borderline horrific.
Yes, UW has a plethora of talent, with probably three guys (minimum) who one day will at least make it to an NBA training camp. But until they get steadier guard play, they're going nowhere in a guard-oriented conference. Lorenzo Romar is getting virtually no offense out of his point guards, with off-guard Ryan Appleby providing the lone scoring threat from the outside. But he's a one-trick pony, and the fact that he can't play point guard -- if he could, he'd still be at Florida -- leads to the Huskies' biggest problem: As bad as their guards are offensively, they're worse defensively.
I've gotten to watch this team up close on two occasions (the first was against Arizona), and this quite possibly is one of the worst defensive teams I've ever seen. Any team with solid guard play can score virtually at will. (Which, by the way, is how Washington got that "impressive" win against LSU -- the inside guys shut down Big Baby Davis and dared the Tigers' guards to beat them, which they couldn't do.) Even with Hawes in the lineup, they're not much better. He's slow on his defensive rotations and a weak shot blocker for a 7-footer. He really should be able to get 1.9 blocks per game (his current average) almost by accident.
When Romar calls me for advice, this is what I'll tell him: Take a page out of the Cougars' book. Slow the game down. Minimize possessions. Pound the ball inside over and over again. I know a leopard doesn't change its spots, and Washington is a running team. But sometimes as a coach you have to put your team in the best position to win. They can't win this way. (Mark my words: If they try to run with Oregon, they'll get killed. Watch.)
- It's amazing what a difference confidence makes. The Cougars have looked cool and calm in the face of adversity all season -- a product, I suppose, of these players getting their collective face kicked in repeatedly over the past two years. Meanwhile, every time these Huskies have left the cozy confines of Hec-Ed, they look lost, like a bunch of ... well ... freshmen and sophomores who haven't learned how to play through tough times.
X's and O's aside, the biggest thing Washington lacks is that swagger they've had over the past few years. There's simply no confidence. The Huskies lack a leader to will them to victory, and while Jon Brockman did his best on Saturday, he just doesn't have the ball in his hands enough to make a tangible difference.
I believe the blame rests in the Huskies cupcake preseason schedule. Hindsight is 20/20, but this team needed some adversity, even if it was simulated by going on the road to an inferior opponent, or going to a neutral-site to play a tough team. I know the theory was to build the confidence of a young team, but all playing all those games at home did was build a house-of-cards confidence, which was blown down with that first trip to The Kennel.
Obviously, the question is whether the Huskies can form that confidence in time to squeeze into the Dance. With five of their next seven at home, they've got a chance to save their season.