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Take heart, Coug fans, and turn your gaze upward

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If you haven't taken the time to read our little reminder about CougCenter and commenting, please take a moment to do so. Although, I must say, most of you must have -- the level of insight has been fantastic since the post. Keep it up.

The last couple of weeks haven't exactly brought out the best in a lot of us, as the basketball team has now lost seven of 10 games to slide to within a half of a game of last place in the Pac-10. We're left searching for answers with regards to how this has happened.

Is it the coaching?

Is it the youth?

Are they just a bunch of chokers?

I submit to you a fourth theory, one that's probably not going to be real popular, but one that I think is the closest to the truth.

Here it is.

This team was never really that good.

I know that's a hard truth and bitter pill to swallow, but I think I can back up that statement pretty thoroughly.

Let's start with what got us all so excited in the first place. I think most of us came into the season with modest expectations. Grady, Craig and I talked on multiple occasions about how this is probably going to be a frustrating team, one that wins some games it shouldn't, loses some games it shouldn't, and otherwise frustrates us as it suffers the growing pains inevitable for a team filled with 14 freshmen and sophomores.

But then, this team started playing games. And they were winning -- a lot.

They went 10-2 in the nonconference schedule. Klay Thompson was shooting up everyone's mock draft boards. The only losses were to two very good teams on the road, and they were actually this close to winning one of them. They wrapped up with a dramatic overtime win over LSU, thought to be a pretty decent SEC foe.

Life was grand. Visions of a return to the NCAA Tournament danced in our heads.

But instead of getting caught up in emotions -- after all, with what's happened in football the last couple of years, we are absolutely desperate for a winner -- we probably should have been a little more keenly aware of trouble on the horizon.

First off, as excited as we all were about Thompson's improvement, we should have been more concerned about the team's reliance on him.

This really only occurred to me later in the season, but it should have occurred to me a lot earlier. I suppose I poo-pooed it at the time because I just assumed Klay was awesome, and although I anticipated a slight drop-off in production in Pac-10 play, I figured he'd still be able to score around 25 points a game. I honestly believed that his shooting ability alone would allow him to do it, given his height and ability. Of course, looking back, that was a really, really dumb thought.

His leap in production almost seemed too good to be true, and we fooled ourselves into thinking it wasn't. Any rational fan would have been skeptical that he really could make -- and sustain -- a jump in production from modestly successful freshman to All American. (Don't kid yourselves -- that's what we thought he was headed for. I mean, we were worried about him declaring for the NBA Draft. Looks awful silly right now, doesn't it?)

Beyond that, there was objective evidence out there to suggest that we perhaps were overrating just about everything about this team's performance.

You know where the Cougs were rated by Ken Pomeroy at the end of the nonconference season? No. 84 heading into LSU -- just a little bit higher than they are now. Again, we poo-pooed it with, "Well, it's only 12 games, small sample size, blah blah blah." Nope, it was already just about right.

And about that LSU game ... I gushed about how the LSU win would prove to be a good one, despite the Tigers being ranked around 150 by Pomeroy before that game. The Tigers would only go on to lose 13 of their next 14, including the last 11. They're now ranked 198th.

Of course, there were flashes of brilliance throughout all of it. But there also were stretches of egregious ineptitude -- remember when we beat Air Force, ranked 256th by Pomeroy, by just seven? -- and we should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that they were winning really because of two factors: The low level of competition and Klay bailing them out.

Not exactly a recipe for success in the Pac-10.

In a nutshell, I think we just fell victim to a little bit of fools gold -- this team is very young and very flawed, and it has been all year long. The inconsistencies that we thought were going to be there were actually there, but being masked by wins. It just took getting into Pac-10 play for it to be fully exposed.

Now, I don't point all of this out to discourage you. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think that once you put this team in the proper context -- once you take it out of the realm of "disappointment," which is not how you should be characterizing this team -- it's not too hard to see that you actually should be encouraged by what's going on right now.

Remember that second-half comeback against USC? Yeah, that wasn't a fluke. The first half against UW at Hec Ed? Not a fluke either. How about the 18-point halftime lead against Stanford? Or the 10-point halftime lead on the road against Cal, far and away the best team in the conference? Not mere chance.

Forget about the second-half collapses for a minute. This team has the talent to play brilliantly, and that's something worth hanging onto. You don't just accidentally do that stuff, and if they can do it for a half, there will come a day when they can do it for an entire game. It might not come in these final six-plus games, but as we saw against Cal, the brilliant stretches are lasting longer and becoming more potent.

That's cause for encouragement.

I'll leave you with this. There was a certain Cougar team a few years ago that finished the season 11-17 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-10 -- dead last in the conference. They lost by two at UCLA (ranked No. 3 by Pomeroy), by five at USC (90), by two against Oregon (36), by two on the road and at home to Cal (37), by two at home to Stanford (64), and by five at Arizona (21). There were some flashes of what the team was capable of -- sweeping UW that year comes to mind -- but so many inconsistencies as a couple of sophomores named Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low tried to figure things out.

That team featured exactly one player with an offensive rating above 100, and he transferred at the end of the year. People openly wondered just whether this whole Dick Bennett thing was going to work out, and became doubly concerned when he stepped aside to allow his son -- who had never been a head coach -- to take over the team.

Those Cougs, who finished the year with a No. 94 rating by Pomeroy, would turn out to be pretty OK.

Am I saying that you should expect some sort of monumental leap along those lines next year? Not really, because that was truly lightning in a bottle. But I submit to you that it's at least possible, because this year's team is in a lot better shape -- and shown a lot more potential -- than that team ever did.

So take heart, Coug fans. Even if things don't go great against the Bruins -- or anyone else down the stretch, for that matter -- know that better days are ahead. Maybe they'll surprise us and suddenly put it together before the end of this year. But I don't expect them to.

And for the first time all year, that doesn't frustrate me.