Coming off the worst loss in a decade for WSU basketball -- which extended the Cougars' losing streak to 11 -- a number of fans seem to be taken aback by just how much of a struggle the Pac-12 season has been this year.
The question: Are they really this bad?
The short answer, of course, is yes. You don't lose 11 games in a row against peer institutions without being a pretty bad team. The Cougs are now ranked 163rd by Ken Pomeroy's laptop, more than 50 spots worse than the next closest Pac-12 team. Some of you might find it interesting that it's only actually 11 spots worse than Pomeroy's preseason projection.
The thing you might find most surprising is that the Cougars finished last season ranked 192nd, which means the team that most everyone seems to think was "better" than this one was considered to be about 30 spots worse than this year's team.
"But how can that be!? Last year's team won seven conference games!"
There are a couple of factors that go into that perception. By far the biggest is the relative strength of the conference WSU plays in this year compared to last year. Casual college basketball fans -- the category most WSU hoops fans fall into -- probably don't realize that the Pac-12 is much, much stronger than it was a year ago.
Last season, WSU was one of six -- SIX! -- teams ranked 100 or worse by kenpom.com; not surprisingly, four of WSU's seven conference wins came against those teams (Cal, UW, USC and Colorado). This season, WSU is one of only two teams team rated worse than 100. (Stanford, at No. 112, is the other.) In fact, the lowest of the top 10 is Arizona State at No. 77.
In 2015, the average strength of the teams in the conference placed it sixth nationally, last among the major conferences; this season, the Pac-12 sits third nationally, behind only the Big 12 and ACC.
No, the Pac-12 doesn't have a 1,000-pound Gorilla at the top -- Arizona is ranked highest at No. 14 -- but this is an exceptionally deep conference where just about everyone is a tough out. And lest you think Pomeroy's system is a bunch of hooey, here's an even simpler measure: Currently, bracketologists project seven Pac-12 teams in the NCAA tournament; in 2015, only four teams made the field.
"But WSU beat one of those teams! If they can play with UCLA ..."
Actually, UCLA isn't one of those seven teams anymore, believe it or not. UCLA is 14-11 overall and just 5-7 in the Pac-12 and squarely on the wrong side of the bubble after losing five of their last eight. So no, beating UCLA at home after the Bruins traveled over the mountains following a 2OT loss to Washington isn't really a significant sign of what this team is capable of.
Besides, even bad teams win occasionally. One of No. 131 TCU's two Big 12 wins is a win (at home) over No. 24 Texas; No. 146 Penn State beat No. 21 Indiana (at home) last week for its third Big Ten win; No. 124 Illinois beat No. 17 Purdue (at home).
No. 163 WSU's win over No. 56 UCLA doesn't look nearly as exciting in that context.
"But we almost beat UW and Colorado at home!"
And, yes, bad teams will sometimes play good teams close, too. No. 134 Wake Forest has exactly one ACC win, and yet lost to No. 2 Virginia by a solitary point (at home) a couple of weeks ago; Minnesota, winless in the Big Ten and ranked 179, was within a bucket of Purdue with a minute to go (at home); No. 212 San Francisco took No. 31 Gonzaga to OT (at home).
And this is the other thing fans need to recognize: Last season, the Cougars -- somewhat improbably -- won virtually all of their close games. In their seven victories, their margin at the end of regulation was a razor-thin plus-14; they won both games that went to OT.
This season? WSU has squandered virtually all of its close-game chances in losses to Idaho, Northern Iowa, Washington, Colorado and USC*. You don't typically see such extreme example of swings in luck from one season to the next, but ... well, you're a WSU fan, so nothing surprises you.
*Given that this game took place on the road, and you see how tough it is for underdogs to win on the road, I'd argue this was WSU's best performance of the season. But I digress.
In the end, the relative weakness of the 2015 Pac-12 plus WSU's unusual record in close games made casual fans feel good about the job Ernie Kent had done in his first season, causing them to project this season a bit too strongly. And now that 2016 has turned into a mess, fans are wondering how it all could have gone so horribly wrong.
The truth is probably actually closer this: WSU is roughly the quality it was expected to be.
So then the bigger question emerges.
What about next year?
I understand why most people are down thinking about next year, watching Ernie's merry band of juco transfers and Ken Bone recruits flail away at superior teams. But I think you can take a little hope in this: 2017 will feature a senior-laden squad -- a number of whom will be playing after their only full year in the program -- and those types of teams tend to take pretty significant steps forward, even when they're athletically limited.
Maybe an experienced team, led by a pair of players (Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson) who already are pretty good, can make the kinds of "winning plays" that secure those tight victories if their classmates can get a bit better over the next nine months.
Will it be a team that contends for the NCAA tournament? That seems pretty far fetched. But we know that Kent's best teams at Oregon were very experienced, and it wouldn't be crazy to think they'd be a lot "better." Will it be enough to make basketball fun again?
Since winning is what makes it fun, that probably will depend to some degree on what happens around the Cougs. Does the Pac-12 get weaker? Tough to say. There's a lot of young talent in the conference that might or might not turn pro, and there don't appear to be a ton of top 100 kids coming into the league, as only three schools have classes ranked in the Rivals top 25.
And who knows -- maybe Kent will pull an ace out of his recruiting sleeve yet. There will almost certainly be a scholarship or two that opens up as a result of roster attrition. Perhaps Kent can get his claws into a graduate transfer who can make an immediate impact.
Of course, none of this provides any hope that things will get better for this season. The Cougars are banged up and run down and they have just two home games left in their final five: This week against Stanford and Cal. The Cardinal, on Thursday, represent the Cougars' best shot at a win the rest of the way -- kenpom.com projects it as a coin flip.
Hopefully they can make that happen, and who knows ... perhaps they can conjure a little magic against Cal on Sunday for Senior Night.
Because, as we know, the No. 163 team jumping up to get the No. 32 team at home is definitely within the realm of not shocking results.