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The Brewery

A gathering place for sports analysis and opinion with Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer.

March 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM

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Washington State: Last chance for a good team to prove itself

Posted by Jerry Brewer

Photo credit: Associated Press
Klay Thompson and the Cougars must win the Pac-10 tournament to be assured a Big Dance invite.

I've always liked this Washington State basketball team. Before the season began, I remember telling Times reporter Bob Condotta that, if enough things went the Cougars' way, they could finish in the top three of the Pac-10. I told him the Cougars should expect to make the NCAA tournament because they have enough top-shelf talent to overcome their depth issues.

After a close early December loss to Kansas State, which was ranked No. 5 at the time, I felt a little better about those statements. And when the Cougars whipped Gonzaga by 22 points in the next game, I started writing on Twitter that Washington State is a tournament team.

Uh, what happened?

The Cougars currently reside on Underachieving Avenue. Their neighbor is their rival, the Washington Huskies. Both teams could've been, at least, two or three wins better. For the Huskies, that would mean they'd be playing for a No. 5 or 6 NCAA tournament seed right now instead of trying to avoid the bubble. For the Cougars, that would mean they wouldn't be playing for their Big Dance lives in the Pac-10 tournament this week.

Washington State (19-11) needs tonight's Pac-10 quarterfinal game even more than the Huskies (20-10) do, and the Dawgs are pretty desperate themselves. When you look at it on the surface, it's weird because the Huskies are only one game better than the Cougars for the season. But the Huskies have more quality wins, played a stronger nonconference schedule and possess a better overall NCAA tournament resume.

Looking back, the Cougars are in this predicament mostly because of three inexplicably bad Pac-10 performances. They swept the Huskies during the regular season, which shows how good this team can be. But they also lost by 26 points to a mediocre Oregon team, by 13 points to a mediocre Stanford team and by two points (after a furious comeback) to an awful Arizona State team.

If the Cougs had won just two of those three games, they would probably be set for Selection Sunday. Or if they had won one of those three games and pulled out that inspiring game last week in which they scared the arrogance out of UCLA without Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore, they would probably be set.

Of course, whenever you have multiple "What ifs" on your mind, it generally means the problem is bigger than just bad luck or ill-timed losses.

Depth and maturity have hurt Washington State more than anything. The Cougars only have eight guys who play regularly, only seven who average double-figures in minutes. Of that group, five players are real solid in their roles -- Thompson, Moore, big man DeAngelo Casto, Marcus Capers and Faisal Aden -- but when any of them struggle, who can pick up the slack? Starting forward Abe Lodwick is shooting only 35.9 percent. Brock Motum is a sophomore who shoots a real high percentage, but he's a little up and down. And Patrick Simon, who averages 9.9 minutes per game, is a freshman with a limited game.

So, as you can see, the Cougars have a small margin for error. Even when they're playing well, success is fragile for this team. Now, consider the marijuana incidents involving Thompson and Moore, and it leaves the impression that this is a team that still has a lot of maturing to do. Which, considering the fact that they have no seniors on the roster, isn't a huge shock.

Still, it seemed like the Cougars, even with their youth, even with their lack of depth, had enough strengths to minimize their weaknesses. They're athletic. They have a dominant wing player in Thompson. Ken Bone is a good coach. But it turns out that they haven't been able to minimize those weaknesses enough.

Nevertheless, with the dynamic scoring of Thompson, the toughness inside of Casto and the talent on the perimeter of Aden, Capers and Moore, the Cougars remain good enough to win three straight games and get the Pac-10's automatic bid. But Moore, who will try to play through an ankle injury, has to be healthy enough to have at least 90 percent of his normal impact. We'll find out very early in tonight's game if he's up to that task.

I continue to believe Washington State is one of the best 68 teams in the nation. But they haven't proved it consistently. Their 9-9 record in the Pac-10 should've been more like 11-7. Bone has already started lobbying for an at-large bid, saying that he thinks two wins in this Pac-10 tournament could get the Cougars in. It's a nice wish. You never know, but if there are any surprise automatic-bid recipients, the Cougars' slight chance of getting an at-large bid becomes no chance. They need to enter this Pac-10 tourney planning on winning the whole thing.

This is their best -- and last -- chance to show that they belong.

Fed up with my long-winded ways? Follow me on Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer. Sometimes, I don't even use all 140 characters there.

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