HARMELING: Trying to figure out these Cougs

THE TWO WEEKS of autonomy over Christmas break has to be one of the best things about being a teacher. For instance, if you're inclined to pick up and head to Spokane for the opening of the Pac-12 basketball season, you just do it. Although trying to explain to your mom why your visit home for the holidays is being cut short in order to see some Cougar hoops adds a certain discomfort to the idea.

"Wait. So can you help me understand why you need to be in Spokane for the Cougar game? Isn't it on TV here?" she asked.

Usually I'm never short on words. Well, actually I can say with confidence that I'm never short on words, especially when it comes to basketball and, more specifically, the Cougs.

"Well ... I mean, it's great being home for once and all ... but ... I don't know ... it's the Cougs, ya know ?"

My mom is a loyal Cougar fan, but she wasn't convinced of my urgent need to be courtside for the opening tip of conference play.

"Wouldn't you rather stay home for three more days and just watch it with us?"

Uh. Not really.

It's the start of the Pac-12, I explained. Ya know ? The Cougs could sweep, getting us off to a fresh start. The conference is wide open, ya know ?

The phrase ya know is always a telltale sign that you're not sure your argument is sinking in, so you imply that half your evidence just goes without saying.

Such is the call of the crimson. It's so powerful that it can even out-do mom.

So as Ben Loewen, a fellow former WSU hoopster, and I watched the Cougar-Duck game wind down from seats inside the Spokane Arena, I received a text message from mom.

"What's the score?"

Apparently she wasn't near a television.

It would have taken me five seconds to text her back, but somehow telling her the score felt like a mute point. I put my phone away. I wasn't sure what I could possibly tell her in a text that would let her reach some sort of understanding as to why I was still glad I made the trip to see this in person.

It was almost like one of those mom moments when they warn you not to do something because it might hurt you. And you do it anyway, and they're there to comfort you afterward when things don't work out, but mainly she wants to remind you of her initial warning. That wasn't my mom's motive, but that's what it felt like.

Precisely three hours and four minutes later, a follow-up text from my mother arrives: So who won and how is Abe?

The answers were clear: Oregon won, and Abe (presumably) is pissed.

But again, it seemed like there was so much more to it than that, so I maintained my silence. My pride and ego was holding out for me to come to some sort of conclusion, some sort of "aaahaa!" as to why I was here and why the Cougs looked to be so far from fulfilling their potential.

I had visions of an angel coming down from the heavens and Tebowing just before handing me the secret. The angel would impart some grand observation about what the Cougars are lacking. It would be an observation that only someone in the arena could have come up with -- something impossible to catch on TV.

But shortly after midnight, I waved the red flag with a simple reply text to mom.

Oregon won. By a lot.

I had hoped to leave my frustration in Spokane, but then Cougfan.com contacted me and said it was high time to start writing again. In other words, I had to face the music of this Cougar basketball team, which is 1-3 in conference play as they prepare for Washington this Sunday at 4 p.m. (TV on FSN).

So why did the Cougs lose so badly to Oregon and how in the world did they lose last week to Utah? These and other questions weighed on me.

I spent much of a day pondering it all and had come up with nothing particularly insightful. And then the eureka moment hit me while house hunting with my real estate agent, Kale Dunning.

The house-hunting process isn't new to me since I have been in the market for about a year now. After having two separate deals fall through to a variety of reasons that I still don't fully understand, I was hoping to find a place that I could finally call home. The first house we toured was a shot in the dark, because as Kale had explained, there already were two offers on it and the odds of both falling through wasn't grounds for optimism.

The second house, however, had no offers, was reasonably priced, was perfectly located, and had every feature I was looking for. In fact, by the time you read this I will have signed an offer on it, and will be doing my own Tebowing if it doesn't fall through.

If it does fall through, I'm going to be angry and disappointed. I'm sure you can sympathize, because I think those are the two emotions that best capture what Cougar basketball fans are experiencing right now.

And you feel them for the same reason I will if my house deal falls through: We have reason to hope, and it stings badly when hope gets slapped in the face.

Without hope, you don't have any emotional investment -- kinda like the first house I looked at the other day. I know I'm not getting that house because I never really had a legitimate shot at it to begin with.

Now the second house I'm invested in -- just like we're all invested in the Cougars. Despite the poor start to the Pac-12 season, I refuse to believe that this team doesn't have the components to continue to give us hope.

That might not be a good thing for you and me. Because every loss from here on out is going to be painful. And frustrating. Because there's enough talent on the floor and coaching experience on the sideline (i.e. hope) to make this thing happen, to make this team turn the corner. To be just one point better than a slew of mediocre teams on the schedule from this point forward.

I have no idea if our investment in this team will be rewarded, but I do believe that for there to be chance, two things have to happen:

1. The zone "defense" that the Cougs run (walk?) should either be scrapped or overhauled because right now it's just not a realistic way to stop an opponent.

2. The leader-follower dynamic needs to improve. Either there is a lack of leadership in the program or a lack of people following the leader(s), because the spates of low urgency are too numerous. Most people think a team not reaching its potential is from a lack of leadership; I strongly believe that the response to leadership is a responsibility of the followers. And if you don't know if you're a leader or a follower, you're a follower. And if you have to ask yourself that question, then I'm taking bets you're probably a lousy follower. As they say, "you can lead a camel to water, but you can't make him drink."

Here's an analogy of where I think things currently stand. If you're eating at your in-laws and the main dish tastes awful, there are a couple possibilities why: Either the cook had a bad recipe that Emeril couldn't have make edible, or the cook didn't follow directions. But unless you are in the kitchen when it happens, you probably won't really know for sure. There have been some poor-tasting meals coming out of the Cougar basketball kitchen the last couple weeks. And the reality is that we can't watch the cooking process to see what's going on in practices. Is it the recipe or the adherence to it? I suppose the struggles could be a mixture of both, but the reality is that we may never really know for sure why everything tastes so darn bad these days.

Simply writing it off as athletes who aren't athletic enough is a cop out. They are plenty athletic enough to compete. Clearly there is no confusing the Cougs with Syracuse, Kentucky or North Carolina, but Utah? Oregon? Colorado?

I'm not trying to call out anyone here. I'm simply looking at the ingredients I see, and what I see doesn't add up to this much bad basketball, especially in a down year for the conference.

What that means is that I still have hope. For this team, this year, the proof will be, as they say, in the pudding, and Sunday's game at Washington is where the menu could start to come together.

Ya know?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daven Harmeling was a mainstay on the Washington State basketball team (and a fixture on the Pac-10 All-Academic team) during the most successful three-year stretch in Cougar history. Part of Dick Bennett's stellar recruiting class of 2004, this Grand Junction, Colo., product completed his eligibility in 2009 and now is in Vancouver, Wash., where he works as a teacher and coach. He writes a periodic column for Cougfan.com during the hoops season.

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