A part of me believes there is a contigent of Cougar fans that would've rather seen WSU lose Sunday night.
Last night's win confirmed something they've believed - that this team isn't what their record says they are. That instead, they are a tournament team. They are one of the better teams in the Pac-10. They shouldn't be a .500 team in conference. They should be a Top 50 team in college basketball. Perhaps even a Top 25 team when they're at their best.
Even though I read kenpom.com religiously, and am viewing our Cougs through permanently crimson-colored glasses, I am a believer in one key tenant of sports: you are who your record says you are. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Now that's not to say that's who you will be at the end of the season. Or in the playoffs. Or in the next week. Or the next game. That's where advanced stats, film study and scouting your opponents have value: predicting the future. They aren't always right, but that's simply because accurately predicting the future is impossible. Right now all you can do is use the best tools available and make a prediction with the knowledge you have.
The past? That's already dead and buried. The Washington State Cougars are 18-10. 8-8 in conference. That's who they are. That's how good they've been in 2011.
Still, the question everyone seems to be asking is this: should they have performed better than that?
Let me start by giving you a lineup:
You know what this is, right? This would be our starting lineup if Klay Thompson wasn't a Cougar. How many conference wins would you expect a team like this to win? Personally, I'd say 8 or 9 on the high end and 4 or 5 on the low end. 6 or 7 wins would be a realistic expectation, and even that might be pushing it. You have a very good Pac-10 big man, a streaky shooter, a good young point guard and two role players. That's it.
Now, I know what you're thinking. We have Klay Thompson. And Klay Thompson is the best player in a weak conference. Except there's two things wrong with that statement: Klay Thompson isn't the best player in the conference - Derrick Williams is. And the Pac-10 isn't weak. It's the fifth best conference by Kenpom's rankings, ahead of the SEC and the surprising Mountain West. And even if you don't believe kenpom, just look at the conference standings. You have eight teams with 7 or more conference wins, with two games left to play for most squads. What that says to me is the Pac-10 has parity: A couple frontrunners (Arizona, UCLA), and then a six car pileup in the middle. All of the teams in the middle of the conference have significant talent and all six can win on any given night.
The point is, even when you add Klay Thompson and the fact the Pac-10 is weak, does this team really strike fear in the hearts of the competition? We've been over how great Klay is time and time again... but he isn't the guy people seem to want him to be: Adam Morrison. In other words, a transcendent scorer. People want Klay to see 4:00 on the clock in the second half and then start scoring at will. Admittedly, I've wanted to see him do it too. But that isn't who he is. Lorenzo Romar on his radio show tonight called Klay an "opportunistic scorer". Klay isn't a dominant scorer in isolation, or against a set defense... but when the defense breaks down; in transition, after an offensive rebound, or after a switch of defenders, he's flat out deadly. But he's not Adam Morrison. He just doesn't score at will.
Oh, and let's not forget a grand total of four players on this WSU team had two years of NCAA basketball experience coming into this season.
To me, our roster looks like an average Pac-10 lineup. Let me give you another lineup as a comparison:
I don't know about you, but I would kill to have this lineup right now. The weakest player in that group just happens to also be your best on-ball defender. Two absolute lights-out shooters in Rochestie and Thompson, and you can forget about out-rebounding or posting up on the Cougs in that frontcourt. It just wouldn't happen.
You get the 2008-09 Washington State Cougars. An 8-10 Pac-10 ball club that lost in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament and the first round of the NIT.
Now I know that isn't entirely fair. That team played in a tougher Pac-10 (#1 by kenpom).. and Thompson, Casto and Capers were all true freshmen.
Still - this team had that talent, and couldn't even sniff the NCAA tournament. And the Grand Emperor of Cougar basketball - Tony Bennett - was at the helm.
This year's team just isn't that talented. 02Coug already laid this out beautifully in a fanpost, which is required reading if you haven't already browsed it. I'll add a wrinkle to it, which is this: we constantly overvalue players who perform well or earn significant playing time as freshmen. You remember Will Derting and Michael Bumpus, right? Based on their freshmen years alone at WSU we all would have had them projected as ten-year NFL starters by the time their football careers were finished. But despite having solid (and not dominating) careers at WSU, Derting never played a down at the next level and Brandon Gibson already has ten times as many NFL receptions (53) as Michael Bumpus had (5) in his entire career.
But back to basketball. Klay Thompson, Marcus Capers, DeAngelo Casto and Reggie Moore are all victims of the freshman projection problem. We expected them to grow exponentially from year to year. But that's just crazy to expect from 18 to 22 year olds. Some players will improve, some won't. Some will improve a lot - like Thompson - some will stay essentially the same. Some even regress. Our current guys have all improved, but not necessarily by leaps and bounds. Sometimes a good player's development gets slowed down by injury, like Reggie Moore has this season. Not all freshman that play their first year are future All-Americans. Some play out of necessity. Thompson, Capers and Casto were certainly in that category.
What ultimately offends me is that people profess that this team is "underachieving", and therefore the blame for that underachievement lies solely with Ken Bone. They point to last night as an example of how good this team can be, and the Arizona State loss as an example of the coaching staff botching the entire season.
So then, let's talk about that Arizona State loss. I have two words for that: San Diego.
The University of San Diego, to put it bluntly, sucks at basketball. They are 6-23 overall, 2-12 in the West Coast and are ranked 303rd by kenpom.com. They recently lost to Gonzaga 68-31. They are horrible.
And yet, on February 16th, they beat WCC co-champion Saint Mary's. By eight points.
This is because of one time-honored basketball principle: crazy stuff happens in conference play.
There is so much familiarity in conference - especially when you play a true home-and-home round robin - that teams know all of your tendencies. Your strengths, your weaknesses... they are all laid out twice a year every year for all your conference opposition to see. And with the tournament approaching the stakes are even higher. Matchups matter more. An off night doing anything - shooting, rebounding, passing - could spell disaster because the margin for error is so small.
That's why it disappoints me so much to hear Coug fans cite the Arizona State loss as completely inexcusable, while turning around and saying the Washington wins were examples of what this team can be. They aren't. The Cougs pose numerous matchup problems for the Huskies, especially the one named DeAngelo Casto. Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye were complete non-factors in both games this season. Casto and the zone were two huge reasons why the Cougs took home two wins against a Husky team that was, frankly, overrated at the start of the year. Meanwhile, the Arizona State game was a close loss, in conference, on the road. Hardly inexcusable at any level of basketball. In between, WSU had their ups and their downs, because they are just simply an average team that is inconsistent and still has a few things to learn.
This team was who they were. Nothing more, nothing less.
And, by the end of this week, we'll find out who they really are.