WSU entered tonight's game knowing that while there were still games left in the season, No. 12 Arizona represented its best chance to pick up a win that would really get the committee's attention. That chance passed them by in a flurry of made Wildcat free throws and one poorly-timed missed dunk as the Wildcats held the Cougars at arm's length until the clock finally ran out on a 79-70 decision.
And while I want to be disappointed with the result, I'm having a hard time feeling that way.
Despite WSU picking up a pair of wins against Arizona last year, the Wildcats actually finished four games better than the Cougs in the final standings a year ago. Both teams had nearly every player back, save for two seniors (Nic Wise and Nik Koprivica).
Guess what? Arizona is still four games better than WSU because they're better than WSU.
And that's the realization I've slowly had to come to. This team is an average major conference squad with average talent on the whole. Klay Thompson is a superlative player, but as I watched the game unfold, I asked myself: If I was going to pick eight guys off these two rosters to start a team, how many Cougars would I pick? Probably two -- Klay and DeAngelo Casto. And that's about it.
In addition to Derrick Williams -- their superstar who got even a little bit better from last year to this than our superstar -- I'd take Lamont Jones, Jamelle Horne, Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom over anyone else on our roster. And it wouldn't be close, save for maybe Reggie Moore over Jones. But I think I'd still take Jones.
So while I want to be frustrated by things like Arizona making its first 21 free throws or Casto missing a dunk, I just can't be. The Cougs scored about 1.0 points per possession against a defense that allows about 1.0 points per possession.
This team is average. Average teams alternate wins and losses for a month, and average teams don't usually go into the arena of the No. 12 team in the country and emerge with a victory.
Oh, and they usually don't end up doing enough to make the NCAA Tournament, either. At this point, I'm not convinced that even winning out the regular season will be enough to get the committee's attention, never mind the fact that average teams aren't real good at putting together four-game winning streaks. As we've talked about, it's a moving target, so nothing is absolute, but if we're speaking in probabilities ... an NCAA appearance is now pretty improbable when you miss probably your last chance to secure a resume-making win.
If this were earlier in the season, I'd declare that the game wasn't a total loss. The Klay Thompson of January made his triumphant and emphatic return, marred only by some turnovers that led to that early hole the Cougars tried so desperately to dig out of. And the guts the team showed to fight back from a 17-point deficit in the second half to try and make a game of it was admirable.
But at this point in the season, all that stuff rings pretty hollow as we're left with watching a team that we overestimated play out the string to the NIT as perhaps the best player ever to put on a WSU uniform participates in what are likely his final games as a Coug.
Klay Thompson Player Of The Game: Thompson -- 30 points on 11-of-24 shooting (it was 10-of-20 before he started bombing away in a futile effort to catch up in the last couple of minutes) with four rebounds and two assists. Tonight was vintage Klay, and I'm gonna miss him like heck when he's gone.
Right Hand Man: Casto. Missed dunk be darned, the big man put in an admirable effort against one of the premier frontcourt players in the country with 14 points, five rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal -- all on one good leg. Gutsy performance.
Unsung Hero: Sorry, nobody deserves this one.
It Was Over When ...: Casto missed that dunk. I know some people lament Faisal Aden missing the front end of a 1-and-1 while down five, but that dunk attempt (which, coincidentally, came off a pretty Aden pass) would have kept us within five with four minutes to go. Instead, Thompson fouled Fogg in the scrum, and two free throws later, it was a nine-point lead. WSU would never get closer than that.
Play Of The Game: Williams hitting a pretty 12 footer with the shot clock expiring after 33 1/2 seconds of stellar WSU defense, which was followed by Casto missing a dunk, which was ... you get the picture.
Stat Of The Game: Arizona going 22-of-24 from the free throw line. Marques Johnson kept pointing out that this is the best FT shooting team in the conference, but that's 74.4 percent. Additionally, they've shot just 70.9 percent in conference. If they just shoot their season average, it's likely a different ballgame. Alas, WSU's free throw defense coach failed again. The Cougs remain the second-most unlucky team in the conference, as only Arizona State "allows" its opponents to shoot a greater percentage from the line.