Are the Cougars an NCAA tournament team? Or ...
Is this just a bubble team that will be playing a directional school in an NIT game come March?
Four games into the Pac-10 season and 16 games overall, the conclusions don't come easily. I'm just as confused after Washington State's pair of 14-point wins over Oregon State and Oregon last week.
On one hand, if the Cougars were a really good, title-type team, they should have laid the wood to at least one of the Oregon schools last week. That didn't happen. The Oregon State game was somewhat in doubt until the final minutes. As for Oregon, WSU was comfortably ahead the whole way, but given the Ducks' sorry state, the Cougars should have been emptying the bench midway through the second half.
Then again, both were double-digit wins. You don't throw those kind back in the lake.
I look at the Pac-10 standings and see Washington (4-0), Arizona (3-1), Stanford (2-1) and USC (2-1) ahead of Washington State. I don't take USC or Stanford seriously as league title contenders, and I'm not even certain about Arizona.
But Washington? At this stage, it's hard to make a case that Washington State is better than the Huskies. UW took Oregon State to the woodshed during the second half, and won a pair of road games in Los Angeles.
Still, it's early. Washington State has time to change my mind about its status as a Pac-10 title contender. I'm waiting for that one "wow" performance to change my mind.
NCAA tourney contender? In the latest ESPN Bracketology, WSU is a 10 seed. For an at-large team, that's dangerously close to bubble city. Given that the Pac-10 isn't the most respected conference in the land, it wouldn't take many losses to fall off the bracket.
Which leads us to this week's games the Bay Area. The Cougars battle California on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Stanford on Saturday at 5:00 (no TV for either).
Want to solidify an NCAA tournament berth? Want to stay in the picture for the Pac-10 title? Then win one, preferably both games. Washington State needs some road wins, and these are winnable games.
California (8-7, 1-2) is as mediocre as its record suggests. The Bears have one good win, a 57-50 triumph over Temple in late November, and several double-digit losses to many good teams on their schedule. California put forth a quality effort in losing at Arizona 73-71 last Thursday.
The Bears, who surprisingly have an RPI of 44, have a 1-5 record against teams with an RPI of 1-50. (Washington State, with an RPI of 59, is 2-2 against 1-50 RPI opponents.)
Statistically, California plays decent defense. The Bears rank among the country's top third in field goal percentage defense (40.8 percent) and rebounding margin (+3.8). But offensively, Cal is challenged. The Bears are a below-average shooting team from 3-point range (32.0) and overall (43.5).
California doesn't have a standout, but three players leading the Bears offense are Harper Kamp (13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds), Jorge Gutierrez (12.9 points) and Markhuri Sanders-Frison (10.0 points, 8.2 rebounds).
Though the Bears would seem to be the easiest of WSU's two opponents this week – Stanford beat California 82-68 in its Pac-10 opener – Cal has had its way of late with the Cougars. The Bears have won four consecutive games and 14 of 19 against Washington State.
Washington State has had better success against Stanford in recent games, with each team winning on their home court the past two seasons. The last time the Cougars won in Palo Alto was 2005, a 59-48 WSU win.
The Cardinal have an RPI of 94, and their record vs. 1-50 RPI schools is 1-3 (the lone win over California.
Stanford's defense is a little deceiving. The Cardinal rank No. 22 in the country in points allowed, yielding an average of 59.5 a game. But some of that is due to the team's pedestrian playing style. A better indication of defense is field goal percentage, where Stanford rates No. 76 overall (40.4) and No. 174 against the 3-point shot (37.0). Defensively, the Cardinal are really no better than California.
Leading the Cardinal is one of Pac-10's top guards in junior Jeremy Green, who is averaging 16 points a game. Also to watch is junior forward Josh Owens (11.5 points, 6.6 rebounds).
Stanford and California are not at Washington State's level in terms of offense. If the Cougars turn this week's games into track meets, they have a good chance to win both.
Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-10 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel
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