MIKE LADD: He and Shelton produced in Oregon
WITH FIVE GAMES remaining in the Pac-12 season, it’s probably worth a look to see what’s at stake for Washington State in the conference tournament. The weekend split in Oregon all but ended any chance the Cougars had of landing a top-four finish and a first-round bye. Which means to win the tournament -- WSU’s only chance of landing in the NCAAs -- the Cougars must win four games in four days.
That's not unprecedented ... remember last year when Connecticut not only won five games in five days to claim the Big East tournament title, then stormed through the NCAAs? Then again, there are not many comparisons to this Cougar team and last year’s NCAA champions.
Nonetheless, if it can happen, this is the year, as the Pac-12 is as weak as it ever has been. Outside of Arizona State, Utah and USC, any team can get hot and win it.
Seeds No. 5 through 12 play on the opening day of the tournament (March 7). It would enhance WSU’s chances of a tourney run if it could land the No. 5, 6 or 7 seeds, as that means an opening-round game against very beatable USC, Utah or Arizona State.
The Cougars (13-12, 5-8) aren’t going to get the No. 5 seed, as the current fifth-place team has four losses, which is four fewer than WSU with five game remaining. Even No. 6 or 7 is going to take some doing, as Stanford and UCLA are currently tied for sixth at 7-6, two games ahead of Washington State.
If Washington State remains where it currently stands -- tied for eighth with Oregon State at 5-8 -- I don’t like the Cougars' chances of going far. For starters, it means an opening-round game against Oregon State. While it’s true WSU has beaten the Beavers twice in one season, a third win over their Northwest rivals is no gimme. OSU has some nice wins on its schedule, and is probably better than it looks.
But even if WSU were to survive the first round, the No. 8-9 winner gets the Pac-12’s No. 1 seed, and I think it’s going to be California. Of all the teams in the Pac-12, I believe the Bears would be the most difficult to beat. They’re seasoned, well-coached and rarely play a bad game.
Of course, it goes without saying that the best thing for Washington State is to go into the tournament hot. Then it doesn’t really matter where the Cougars are seeded. Win four of five down the stretch, and the confidence from a hot streak could take WSU places.
COMING THIS WEEK: Washington State starts a three-game home stand at 6 p.m. Thursday when it entertains Arizona (18-8, 9-4), followed by a 5 p.m. Saturday game against Arizona State (8-17, 4-9). Both games will be televised by Root Sports.
As pointed out above, a sweep this week is almost mandatory if the Cougars want a better position in the Pac-12 tournament. WSU must reverse the results of its road trip to Arizona in late January, when it lost to Arizona 85-61 and Arizona State 71-67.
The game against Arizona got away from the Cougars after Faisal Aden went down with a season-ending knee injury late in the first half. Aden was coming off a Pac-12 player of the week performance the previous week. In that game, Kyle Fogg hit four 3-pointers and led Arizona with 20 points.
Arizona clearly has motivation coming into this game, as the Wildcats are just a game out of first place. UA rides into Pullman on a four-game winning streak, which includes perhaps the Pac-12’s most impressive win of the season, a 78-74 decision over Cal in Berkeley.
Arizona is one of the better defensive units the Cougars will face this season. The Wildcats are No. 1 in the country in 3-point field goal defense, and among the top 30 in overall field goal defense. What they lack is a dominant, NBA-type player, unusual for an Arizona team. The Wildcats have three double-digit scorers in Fogg (12.8 ppg), Solomon Hill (12.5) and Jesse Perry 11.9). =
Washington State should beat Arizona State. The Sun Devils have lost five consecutive Pac-12 road games by double digits, and are coming off a 63-49 loss to Colorado in Tempe. Hard to know what to make of ASU’s win over the Cougars on Jan. 28. WSU was reeling from the Aden news, but the Sun Devils were without Trent Lockett, their leading scorer. Lockett returned to action last week after missing six consecutive games.
Brock Motum is averaging 17.4 points per game, the second-most in the Pac-12 behind OSU's Jared Cunningham at 18.8. Motum is fourth in the conference in field goal accuracy (56.7 percent), and sixth in rebounds (6.8 per game).
There are five games left in the regular season but it's almost a certainty that Reggie Moore will be the Pac-12 assist champion this year. He has 143, which averages to a glossy 5.72 per game. The next-closest player in the conference, Cal's Justin Cobb, is averaging 1.14 fewer per outing.
Mike Ladd and D.J. Shelton turned it on for the Cougars in the swing through the Willamette Valley. Shelton averaged just under 25 minutes of playing time in the two games and produced a collective 15 rebounds, 20 points and 2 blocks. Ladd averaged 21 minutes and fired up a collective 18 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block.
WSU is the second-best free-throwing shooting team in the Pac-12 (72.8 percent) behind Cal (75.4). The Cougs are third in the conference in field-goal percentage (47 percent) and fourth in 3-point field goal accuracy (37.6 percent).
Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-10 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel