Disclaimer: This is not a prediction post. I would love to say I think the Cougars are good enough to make the field of 64... err, I mean 65 [bracket creep rears its ugly head! We should cancel the tournament and settle this competition the only way real men do: in a series of 34 Bowl games, of which only one has any sort of impact on the national championship picture].
Unfortunately, I'm not at a point where I feel confident in predicting the Cougars as March Madness participants. I'm not saying necessarily the Cougars can't make the tournament. They can. It just happens to be up to them, and them alone, and not a matter of my own prognostication skills. Essentially, what I'm providing tonight is a glance at what WSU must do - at a minimum - to find themselves dancing in March.
First, we have to answer the time-honored question: what gets us in? Right now, we sit at 10-2 heading into conference play. No marquee wins, but no bad losses either. We've lost to the only two top 100 teams we've played (per the kenpom rankings), and defeated all the others on the bad side of 100. I wish I could say definitively that 10 or 11 wins in conference play gets us into the tournament, but unfortunately a lot of our future is decided by how well our nonconference opponents play the rest of the way. K-State and Gonzaga could very well finish in the Top 25; that helps our cause. LSU needs to stay afloat in a surprisingly competent Southeastern Conference. If a few of our other opponents can sneak into the dance - for example, Idaho getting their act together - then even better.
However, the Pac-10 itself needs to ride the coattails of a strong Christmas Break and keep proving to people it's not the horrifically awful conference some think it is. And, really, it isn't. Right now, the Pac-10 is ranked sixth by kenpom, the worst since 2005. But did you know: the Conference of Champions was rated as low as ninth back in 2004? Yep. That was the same year Dick Bennett took a ragtag, talent-starved group of Cougars to a 7-11 conference record and a tie for seventh place. Probably not a coincidence. So the Pac-10 has been worse, but the expectations have also changed. That's thanks in large part to the conference having a first place ranking last year (not surprising), and a second place standing the year before that. The Pac-10's ascension to premier basketball conference has flown under the radar (ask a former coach of ours who still thinks the ACC walks on water), but now that we've come back to Earth things look far worse than they actually are.
Right or wrong, perception rules the day, and perception right now says the Pac-10 is a three or four bid conference at maximum. That means the Cougars need to finish in the top four. Precisely, to be safe, I'd imagine the Cougars need to put together 11 conference wins. That would also take the pressure off for the conference tournament, where they need only win one game to solidify a spot, rather than two, or the whole enchilada. [Side note: this is also a great year for the conference tournament - which could be wide open, and allow the conference to sneak a team into the dance that might otherwise not belong. It could even be a young team with one of the conference's premier players, a first-year head coach and gray alternate jerseys] Such a conference record - assuming they go one and done in the Pac-10 tourney - puts the Cougs at 22-10. I have a hard time seeing the selection committee denying a team in a power conference with that kind of resume. Of course, if they were to do it to someone, it would be us. That's a story for a different day.
Now, what's the easiest path to get there? Kenpom - which I'm sure you're aware is completely infallible and 100% accurate - has us finishing at 8-10 in conference. To get to eleven wins we need to win the games we're projected to win, and pick up three more along the way. Here's how I see it happening:
Week 1: Sweep the Oregons at home. This is a big weekend for us, and the Cougs must get off to a strong start. 12-2 (2-0).
Week 2: Split on the road at Arizona. Doesn't matter which one we get. There's the weakened, susceptible Arizona team, or the Arizona State team that is much better but features a 2-3 zone that Klay Thompson eats for dinner. 13-3 (3-1).
Week 3: Split with the Bay Area teams in Friel. In other words, beat Stanford and lose to Cal. 14-4 (4-2).
Week 4: Split in SoCal. Oddly enough, UCLA seems to be the more likely candidate for a win, despite the fact we're 2 and 3849834285 in trips to Pauley Pavillion. 15-5 (5-3).
Week 5: Lose to the Huskies at Hec Ed. No shame in that, at least this season. 15-6 (5-4).
Week 6: Split the Arizonas at home. Again, ASU is formidable so I wouldn't necessarily pencil us in for a win. 16-7 (6-5).
Week 7: Split in the Bay Area. It is important we sweep the Tree, given our past record of misfortune against the Golden Bears. It's also important that we don't fall apart in this tough week 4 through week 7 stretch. 17-8 (7-6).
Week 8: Sweep USCLA at home. Who'd have ever thought we might be favored in both games against the Bruins this season? Regardless, we need them. This will be a huger than huge weekend for the Cougs if they are still in it. Let's hope the youth comes together. 19-8 (9-6).
Week 9: BEAT THE DAWGS. On Nik Nite in Beasley, of course. 20-8 (10-6).
Week 10: Split in Oregon. Lest I remind you how tough this road trip has been for us historically, even when Oregon State was at its worst. The Cougs would be red hot at this point if they've done what I've projected, so it's only natural there might be a letdown in one of these road games. It'd be great to have the breathing room, though, if they could pull off both. 21-9 (11-7).
Conference Tourney: Win the first game over the #5 seed (my prediction: Southern Cal), then fall to the #1 seed (prediction: Cal) in a hard-fought semifinal that endears us to the selection committee. 22-10 (12-8).
So there we are. Is it doable? Surprisingly, yes. The bad news is that there is very little room for error. The Cougars need to be consistent, avoid the dreaded three-game losing streak, and get hot in February when the schedule gifts us five home games.
Still, it is possible. Plus, it's going to be a heck of a lot of fun to see if these young Cougars can pull it off.