This week in Cougar Hoops

I'VE BEEN AT this sports writing business for more than 30 years, yet I'm still sometimes amused at what coaches and athletes have to say in the aftermath of a loss.

The one that makes me laugh hardest is the comment coming from the losing football team, where player/coach says, "We gave them the game with those five turnovers." As if the other team had nothing to do with the takeaways and the losing team simply dropped the ball on the field on its own.

Rewind to last Saturday, when Washington State lost to UCLA 63-60. Take this comment in the Spokesman-Review from WSU forward Brock Motum regarding the Cougars' 15 turnovers that led to 18 UCLA points.

"Take half that back, and we win the game by six or whatever," Motum said.

As if the plethora of turnovers was a stunning turn of events. At this point of the season, most college basketball teams pretty much are what they are, and Washington State is a turnover-prone squad. You might as well have penciled in the Cougars for those 15 turnovers against UCLA, because that's been the trend all season.

Washington State is one of the Pac-12's worst teams in handling the ball; the Cougars rank 10th in the league with an average of 14.1 turnovers per game, trailing only Arizona State (16.3) and Oregon State (14.3).

Sure, if the Cougars could cut down their turnovers, they would reduce the opponent's points off turnovers, and perhaps their record would be better than 12-11. But this team doesn't seem capable of anything other than sloppy ball-handling, so the results will be erratic. And erratic, much like the turnovers, is what Washington State is more than three months into the 2011-12 season.

In fairness to Motum, it must be said that he's far and away the Cougs' best player and without him, WSU would be struggling to get out of the Pac-12's second tier so much more than they already are.

The week ahead: Washington State (12-11, 4-7) heads to the Willamette Valley this week, where the Cougars play at 7 p.m. Thursday against Oregon State (15-8, 5-6), and 2 p.m. Saturday against Oregon (16-7, 7-4). No television is planned for either game.

Washington State has seven games remaining in the Pac-12 season, and just three at home. Based on everything I've seen this season, it's unreasonable to think the Cougars can get on a late-season run and crack the league's top four, which would give them a first-round tournament bye. No, WSU appears on its way to first-daysville in the Pac-12 tournament, meaning it will need to win four consecutive games to claim the championship.

But, it might be nice if Washington State started to establish something on the road, as only three out of however many games the Cougars have remaining (Pac-12 tournament, random.com tournament) are in Pullman. The rest will be road or neutral floor contests, games in which WSU is 2-9 this season … and 0-5 in the Pac-12.

As we've previously pointed out, the root of WSU's road problems is defense, and specifically, field goal defense. During their last road trip, Arizona State and Arizona shot a combined .524 from the field against the Cougars. WSU's 3-point field goal defense in its nine road losses is .421.

This could lead to a long night in Corvallis, where Oregon State is averaging 86.6 points a game in Gill Coliseum. If the Beavers can score 87 on UCLA and 78 on USC – two grind-it-out teams -- at home, they're likely to light up Washington State for 80-plus. Do the Cougars have the firepower to hang in a game like that?

Washington State matched its Pac-12 high for points in beating Oregon State 81-76 on Dec. 31 in Spokane. Although the Cougars led most of the game, they needed last-minute free throws to seal the win after OSU's Ahmad Starks hit four 3-pointers during the final five minutes.

Leading the Beavers is junior guard Jared Cunningham, a Pac-12 player of the year candidate averaging 18 points and three steals a game. Others to watch include sophomore forward Devon Collier (13.1 ppg, 4.6 rebounds), and Starks (12.8 ppg, 53-145 from 3-point). And Eric Moreland – his offensive contribution is negligible but his defense is huge, the kind of player who Cougar fans would have loved if he had played at WSU in the Dick/Tony Bennett era.

Washington State has some payback, or least a play-better performance, on its mind for Saturday's game at Oregon. The Cougars probably turned in their worst game of the season in a 92-75 drubbing to the Ducks in Spokane. Oregon made quick work of a WSU team on a six-game winning streak as it shot a stunning 71 percent during the first half to lead by 20 at halftime.

Senior forward Olu Ashaolu had his breakout performance of the season against WSU, with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Ducks' offensive leader is Devoe Joseph, the senior guard who has scored in double figures in 16 of 17 games since becoming eligible on Dec. 10.

If there's one small silver lining for Washington State, it's that the Ducks haven't exactly nails in Matthew Knight Arena. Oregon has dropped Pac-12 home games to California and Oregon State, and struggled to beat punchless USC two weeks ago.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-10 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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