In so many ways, the WSU Cougars getting the tar beat out of them by Wichita State in the semifinals of the NIT by a final score of 75-44 was the absolute perfect end to this roller coaster of a season.
It started with a stellar non-conference season that was marred only by losses to Kansas State and Butler, then continued with a rocky start to Pac-10 play (losses to UCLA and USC on the road). For the rest of the conference schedule, this team's play would be m would be marked by some nice wins (UWtwice, USC, Cal) and some absolutely head-scratching losses (Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State).
So, it would only figure that this team would put some things together and start to look pretty decent in the NIT, only to completely fall apart in an otherwise inexplicable way once it reached New York. The only reason this wasn't inexplicable? We've seen it before. Multiple times.
For whatever reason, this team has games where it doesn't match the intensity of its competition -- and it's usually against competition a reasonable person would consider inferior. It happened against Butler, it happened against Oregon, Stanford and ASU, and it happened again tonight against Wichita State.
The Shockers took WSU out of everything they wanted to do offensively, and the weak-willed Cougars we hadn't seen since earlier this season were all too happy to oblige. Wichita State's energy on defense challenged the Cougs to be more disciplined with their decisions, fight harder for position and be more determined with their cuts.
For whatever reason, the Cougars couldn't bring themselves to do it -- a malaise that extended to the defensive glass, where WSU allowed the Shockers to rebound 51.5 percent of their own misses, the third time this year the Cougars have given up greater than 50 percent. The other two times it didn't hurt them (wins over Washington and Baylor) because their energy on defense was still good, likely thanks to good offense in those games. Tonight, with the offense sputtering, all those rebounds given up were a death knell.
I know a lot of people are looking for someone to blame. And that might be a viable endeavor if this was something out of the ordinary. But this isn't the first time this team has no-showed this year; the only thing consistent about these guys is their inconsistency. So trying to pin this on anyone or anything is a fool's errand.
But as one season ends, another begins. And I can't help but look forward.
What tonight showed more than anything is that this roster still has some pretty glaring holes. Klay Thompson was the superlative player on the floor tonight (despite the foul trouble and ineffectiveness), but when you removed him from the lineup for extended periods, it was clear which team had the better remaining basketball talent -- and it wasn't the one from the major conference. Even if you want to consider the perimeter players a wash (which I wouldn't, but I'll stipulate that you could), where the Pac-10 Cougars have one competent big man, the MVC Shockers had four. And those four dominated.
No coach in the world can overcome that. There's a lot you can do with scheme. Preventing better big men from getting rebounds is not one of them.
Help is on the way, but it's going to be young, and with the exception of DaVonte Lacy (who is reasonably polished), it's going to be raw. Still ... raise your hand if you think even a young, raw jumping jack of a big man would have made a difference tonight, and at plenty of other times this year? Yeah, me too.
Of course, how much they're going to help depends largely on whether Thompson and DeAngelo Casto return. But there will be plenty of time for analyzing the impact of that. For now, I'm actually just sad the NIT doesn't play a consolation game anymore. I'd love for these Cougs to have one more crack at it, because the season ending this way makes me sad for the players.
Even if it was poetic.