MOTUM STILL IN HUNT FOR SCORING TITLE
THE END OF one of the most frustrating stretches in recent memory for Washington State basketball gets underway tonight. The Cougars finish the regular season this week with home games against UCLA and USC. In addition to vanquishing a long losing streak, could one of the Cougars take the Pac-12 scoring crown after it's all said and done? He's only 4/10ths of a point behind the leader.
What's at stake for the Cougs over these last two games? Ending a nine-game losing streak would probably feel like removing a 1,000 pound weight off of their shoulders before the Pac-12 Tournament. It's been more than a month since WSU tasted victory -- and it probably feels a lot longer than that.
UCLA (23-6, 12-4) can clinch at least a share of the Pac-12 title and perhaps the tournament’s No. 1 seed with a sweep of the Washington schools. But the Bruins could fall as far as the No. 4 seed should the Washington trip turn into a lost week. UCLA has clinched a first-round tourney bye, however.
USC (14-15, 9-7) still has a chance to earn a first-round bye with a combination of events, but the Trojans must sweep of the Cougars and Huskies to make it a possibility. But there’s also the prospect of a No. 9 seed for USC should it drop both games in Washington.
The Cougars (11-18, 2-14) are currently in the Pac-12 basement, but could improve their seed to as high as No. 10 with a sweep and losses by Oregon State and Utah.
Regardless of whether it finishes 10, 11 or 12, Washington State could face one of at least a half-dozen teams in its Pac-12 opener, based on the outcome of games this week. Heading into the final week, one win separates fifth-place Colorado from ninth-place Stanford. Even fourth-place Arizona (23-6, 11-6) is a first-round possibility should the Wildcats drop their regular season finale to Arizona State.
When it comes to the Pac-12 tournament, there isn’t a team Washington State can’t beat except perhaps Arizona.
Now, if the Cougars could just get the NCAA to change the length of games to 34 minutes, but that’s another story.
The week ahead: It starts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with UCLA in Beasley Coliseum, followed by the regular season finale at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against USC. The Pac-12 Network televises both games.
Earlier in February, Washington State dropped both games in southern California, losing to UCLA 76-62 and USC 72-68.
The loss to UCLA was one of the few league games this season where WSU didn’t have a chance to meltdown late in the game. The Bruins took control from the outset, leading by 15 points at halftime and as much as 20 during the second half. Four of UCLA’s five starters scored in double figures, and the one who didn’t, Larry Drew, handed out eight assists.
Aside from the Pac-12 title for UCLA this week, also at stake is the league scoring title for freshman Shabazz Muhammad. He’s averages 18.3 points a game, one-tenth of a point behind current leader Allen Crabbe of California.
WSU’s Brock Motum remains in the Pac-12 scoring title picture as well at 17.9 points a game.
Drew has become the Pac-12’s premier playmaker, as his 7.9 assists per game average is nearly three better than anyone else.
UCLA leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 76 points a game, but ranks 11th in scoring defense. Expect a high-paced game in Pullman, one that’s likely to come down to the final five minutes. Washington State may wilt when the pressure’s on, but it’s to the Cougars credit that they haven’t quit despite the season’s high adversity.
USC rivals Oregon for the Pac-12’s most surprising team this season. The Trojans were picked to finish near the bottom of the league, and sure seemed destined for the basement after a 4-8 start and a midseason firing of coach Kevin O’Neill. Instead, USC has rallied, winning six of its past eight games to assure that it will finish at least .500 in league.
You really have to look to find Trojans among the Pac-12’s prominent statistical category. The best is guard Jio Fontan, the league’s No. 2 in assists at 5.1 Forward Eric Wise is USC’s leading scorer, but his 12.3 average barely ranks among the Pac-12’s top 20.
Washington State’s 72-68 loss at USC on Feb. 7 was among the many late-minute flameouts for the Cougars this season. The game was winnable with seven minutes remaining when USC’s J.T. Terrell went off, hitting three 3-pointers during a three-minute stretch to help the Trojans open up an eight-point lead.
Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel