Romar picking Cougs to win it all?

LAS VEGAS – Sand can be found everywhere in this desert oasis. Perhaps that explains why Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar was so busy sand-bagging on the eve of the Pac-12 Conference tournament.

After first establishing that he does not believe momentum – good or bad – is a key factor going into tournaments, Romar propped up the last-place Washington State Cougars as the potential champions.

It's probably sheer coincidence (wink, wink) that the Huskies face WSU tonight at the MGM Grand Arena. Romar, no stranger to mind games, just might be trying to make his sixth-seeded Huskies seem like underdogs of some sort against the 11th-seeded Cougars – even though Washington has swept the season series with WSU two straight years.

"If there was such a thing as momentum for this tournament, I'd pick them to win it," Romar told reporters Tuesday evening. "I haven't seen many teams play the way they've played those last two games. They were really impressive."

The Cougars certainly were impressive in dominant wins over regular-season champion UCLA and USC. Those wins came on the heels of a nine-game losing streak, but the fact is, only two teams (Stanford and Utah) have winning "streaks" as long as WSU's two-gamer.

Las Vegas gives 33/1 odds on the 11th-seeded Cougars winning four games in as many days to claim their first conference championship since 1941. WSU must win the title to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since a Sweet 16 run in 2008.

Washington opened as a 2 1-2-point favorite over the Cougars, but that quickly dropped to 1 1-2. The only teams given worse odds than the Cougars to win the Pac-12 tourney are USC (50/1), Oregon State (100/1) and Utah (also 100/1). Arizona is the favorite at 2/1. Washington's 18/1 odds rate seventh.

Hey – the Cougars will gladly accept 33/1 odds. After all, at least one betting site won't even publish odds on Washington State winning the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are one of a glob of teams given the longest odds – 1,000/1.

(Indiana is the 9/2 favorite. The top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, who nipped the Cougars by two points in December, are tied for seventh at 10/1).

Asked to explain why the Cougars are suddenly playing so well, Ken Bone said, "I don't really know exactly." The coach then listed a number of factors: Better poise late in games. Good rebounding. No long lapses in execution. Brock Motum's scoring. And the continued improvement of sophomore guard Royce Woolridge.

"Royce is playing about as well as he has all year," Bone said. "When I say that, I I don't mean just scoring, although he has scored maybe 15, 16 a game (17, actually) the last 10 games. "He's shot the ball better. He's driving to the hoop. He's handling the ball better. He's not really turning it over. I think he's just comfortable out there."

Woolridge, a onetime Phoenix prep phenom, sat out last season as a redshirt at WSU after seeing little action as a freshman at powerful Kansas.

"It was a long layoff," Bone said.

"It's definitely been a growing process the whole year," Woolridge said. "I'm starting to get a feel for it. Now it's the end of the season, and I'm starting to feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident."

Motum has registered double-doubles the past two games. He scored a season-high 31 points Saturday against USC, and Woolridge added 25 points and a career-high seven assists.

"The last two games, Brock has been unstoppable … we're working together a lot more than we were at the beginning of the year," Woolridge said. "We know each other's spots a little bit better and we know where to get each other the ball."

Asked if he's surprised the Cougars played so well the past two games after losing nine straight, the relentlessly optimistic Motum said, "Not at all. As I've said after each game, I felt like we've improved even though we'd lost so many in a row. I felt even though it was just marginal, we improved each of those games and we learned some stuff."

That "stuff" the Cougars have learned includes more ways to get the ball to Motum down low when talented Huskies defender Desmond Simmons is fronting him. Combine that with fewer turnovers and more rebounds, and the Cougars like their chances Wednesday night.

"It's not like we're just playing phenomenal basketball," Bone said. "But we're playing pretty good for who we are."

"I think it's the best we've played all year," Motum said.

"We're really happy with where we're at right now," Woolridge said. "We're going to keep grinding, and we're really looking forward to the tournament."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Mike Ladd, hampered by injuries during both his seasons at WSU, suffered a chipped tooth when he took a charge at practice Tuesday. "He's fine, but the poor guy," Bone said. The coach then cracked, "Looks better than he did before."

  • Bone on the Huskies-Cougars rivalry: "Any time you see them, it's on."

  • Motum, whose parents and sister are visiting from Australia, said his first look at the Las Vegas Strip at night was "an eye-opener. There's a lot of strange people on the streets." Motum said his parents aren't the gambling types. "Mom started putting a quarter in a machine, but dad stopped her," he said.

  • Bone and Romar said they expect the tournament to be more warmly received in Las Vegas than at its former home in Los Angeles. Romar revealed another reason for his fondness for playing at the MGM Grand: bread pudding at one of the hotel restaurants. "It's one of the great wonders of the world," Romar declared.

  • The recent knee injuries of Ladd and DaVonte Lacy have forced Woolridge to log long minutes. "I'm a little tired," he said with a smile. "I go to sleep a little bit earlier at night."


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