We all have spent most of the season lamenting the opportunities that the Washington State Cougars have missed in their quest to jump up into the NCAA tournament for the first time in a long time, but the last few weeks of the season — and last night’s loss to UCLA in particular — showed plainly that this team, to borrow a phrase, is not (yet) ready for prime time.
To be sure, they’ve shown flashes. But, ultimately, there’s a pretty clear gap between where this team is and where it needs to be in order to consistently compete on the level at which Tournament teams typically compete, and we saw it on full display in the Pac-12 quarterfinals.
For the second time in two games against UCLA, the Cougs struggled mightily to get anything going on offense, and both times it was because WSU has a hard time competing physically with the Bruins. It’s the sort of thing that has happened to generations of Cougar teams against the likes of UCLA and Arizona — all-time WSU record against those two: 36-181 — and for all the gains we’ve made in that department over the last two years, we’re still not quite there.
Last season, we split a pair of games with UCLA. Between last season and this one, we got smaller on the perimeter with 6-foot-1 Michael Flowers and 5-11 Tyrell Roberts stepping in and 6-3 Isaac Bonton and one of a slew of 6-5/6-6 guys (Ryan Rapp/TJ Bamba/DJ Rodman, however you want to parse it) stepping out, and taller on the interior by adding Mouhamed Gueye. UCLA, meanwhile, kept its length on the perimeter (minus Tyger Campbell*) and added a legitimate rim protector in 6-11 Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson.
*And Campbell, at 5-11, only played 27 out of the 80 minutes in these two games, which I don’t think is coincidental!
Adding Flowers and Roberts and Gueye has boosted the Cougars’ offense overall; their adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom.com jumped from 167th last season to 80th this season. In that respect, the offense has made some big strides. But against UCLA, the physical stature of the lineups (which wasn’t helped by Gueye’s absence last night) contributed to some ugly offense for the Cougs that produced fruitless forays inside the arc and desperate heaves outside it.
WSU scored 0.82 and 0.98 points per possessions in the two contests, and the latter was only that high because of some serious garbage time production — the actual number was probably something like 0.89 before Bamba went off for 8 points in the last minute.
Then, on the other end, the team was powerless to stop Jaime Jacquez Jr., whose size, athleticism, and basketball smarts repeatedly vexed the defense. WSU just did not have an answer — Noah Williams wasn’t strong enough, Andrej Jakimovski wasn’t quick enough. The Cougs eventually went to their zone, which we all know is horrible, but what else are you going to do?
WSU just is a notch below where it needs to get. And as we’ve said before, that’s really OK, for now.
For what it’s worth, the metrics — which have been kind to the Cougars for so much of the season — are now underscoring that, too.
It’s been impossible to avoid talk of the Cougars’ NET ranking on the TV broadcasts because, for a long time, it was pretty darn good despite the frustrating losses suffered in December. But after Thursday’s loss to UCLA, the NET ranking sank to 61. It’s dropped that low — from a high of 36 after beating Cal on February 5 — largely because WSU hasn’t been able to prove it can beat anyone who is tournament worthy.
Kenpom.com reflects much the same reality. The Cougs topped out at 32 after that win over Cal, then tumbled to 43 after losing five straight to the best teams the conference had to offer, then tumbled to 59 after a loss to Washington and closer-than-expected wins over Oregon State. They did get a bump from whipping Oregon in the finale, but they settled into the mid-50s, sitting at 56 after losing to the Bruins.
Which is why I think a lot of fans would do well to finally let go of their lamentation of the early-season losses. Let’s say this team had beaten Eastern Washington, South Dakota State, and New Mexico State, they still would lack the “Quad 1” win that is so vital to getting the committee’s attention. I don’t think those three wins gets them in the bubble conversation. Winning that close game against USC at home wouldn’t have gotten you a Quad 1 either — that game is now classified as a Quad 2.
As it turned out, the Cougs had just six total Quad 1 opportunities: Arizona at home; UCLA, USC, and Colorado on the road; and UCLA and Boise State at neutral sites. Teams in some other major conferences had Quad 1 games make up a third or more of their schedule, but the lack of quality in the Pac-12 proved to be incredibly costly in terms of opportunities for WSU. Because of that, the Cougs probably needed to win half those games to make a strong NCAA case, but they really were only on the verge of winning one (USC) and in punching distance of two others (Colorado, Boise State). The other three — granted, against two of the best teams in the country — were all basically blowouts.
In the end, I just don’t think an NCAA tournament berth was as near as it seemed for most of the season.
There will be lots of time to think about how we bridge that gap next season, but for now, we wait to see if we get picked for the NIT. Even that is a pretty tenuous proposition at this point; it’s worth noting that while the committee that selects the NIT isn’t the same as the NCAA tournament committee, it is an NCAA committee that picks the NIT, because it is an NCAA-run tournament (unlike the last time we were in it, in 2011), so the same selection principles are going to apply. It’s also worth noting that there are fewer at-large spots available in the NIT than in 2011, since any regular season champ who doesn’t win their conference tournament receives an autobid to the NIT.
Should the NIT decide it’s not a fan of WSU, the Cougs could also end up in the CBI, which has decided to remain a self-contained tournament in Florida with 16 teams who decide a champion in five days. I have no idea how feasible that tournament is for WSU, but I’d think WSU would probably take the opportunity to win a trophy if they were invited.
Here’s to hoping we get some happy news on Sunday afternoon and we’re headed on the road to play in the NIT.