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Preview: WSU visits Cal in a game that suddenly feels a lot less safe

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NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

About a month ago, the Washington State Cougars were 8-14 overall, and only a win at home against the pitiful California Golden Bears in the middle of January provided a brief respite from long losing streaks.

Then things got weird, and WSU beat the Arizona State Sun Devils, Arizona Wildcats and Colorado Buffaloes in a four-game span, with only a narrow loss to the first place Washington Huskies mixed in. Cal, meanwhile, continued to mostly get spanked by everyone, falling to 0-15 in a league that will probably only secure one NCAA tournament bid. The Golden Bears were making a strong case for being one of the worst power conference teams of all time.

Then, on Thursday, things got even weirder.

First the Cougs got run over by 48 points at the hands of the thoroughly mediocre Stanford Cardinal. I guess that’s not that weird, given (a) how the Cougs had played for the majority of the season, and (b) Ernie Kent is still the coach. And it certainly doesn’t compare to what happened shortly thereafter, when Cal pulled off what might have been the most unlikely win of the season by beating the one team everyone assumed was actually going to make it to the Big Dance: Washington.

For one night, at least, two teams that were going in opposite directions are now going in the opposite opposite directions. Which makes the game today in Berkeley between these teams locked into 11th and 12th place — 4 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks/Pac-12.com/Pac-12 Now — an odd one to get a handle on.

After the first win over Cal, this was the one game left on the schedule that it seemed like the Cougs would probably win. The Golden Bears had been near 300 all season in the Pomeroy Rankings. Now ... ?

From a strictly mathematical standpoint, kenpom.com had projected the Cougs as a two-point favorite before Thursday. Vegas has now made Cal a one-point favorite. Vegas odds and kenpom.com are typically pretty close unless some factor that the algorithm can’t account for is in play; thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that Thursday’s results swung expectations by roughly three points.

And honestly? That’s seems about right. Ernie alluded to some sort of internal issue that’s breaking the team apart, and the Cougs will once again have just eight players suited up — Viont’e Daniels, Jeff Pollard and Carter Skaggs all are out with concussions, transfer Chance Moore is ineligible to play until midway through next season, and Arinze Chidom left the team months ago. That’s a bad spot for WSU.

Still, Cal is very, very bad; one outlier result doesn’t change that. And WSU boasts the best player on the floor in Robert Franks, and maybe even the second-best in CJ Elleby. The Golden Bears’ defense is still bad, and the Cougars ought to be able to exploit some of that — provided, of course, they don’t come up with an unusually bad shooting performance.

Whether the Cougs’ defense succeeds probably depends largely on the 3-Point Lottery; Cal doesn’t typically shoot a ton of threes and the Bears are an awful shooting team overall, but anyone can get hot for a night. Just ask the Huskies!