THIS WEEK IN WSU HOOPS: Toughest game on tap?

IF THIS WERE MOST YEARS, Washington State might be at a crossroads heading into the season's quirkiest Pacific-12 road trip, the thin-air swing through Utah and Colorado.

Here are the Cougars, now 3-2 after splitting at home with the Oregon schools. The toughest road trip of the season awaits, starting Wednesday at Utah, where visiting Pac-12 teams have lost by margins of 24, 25 and 32 points this season. Then it's Colorado, while not as good as the past few years, still a tough out at home. Combined, Colorado and Utah are 19-1 at home this season.

Thus, the crossroads. How does Washington State possibly remain among Pac-12's upper echelon without at least a split this week?

Most years, we'd wonder. This year, we don't. This year, just enjoy the Cougars' successes and accept their failures.

This team has already done more than any of us thought possible. It's essentially the same team Ken Bone coached to a 3-15 league record last season. Yet, somehow, Ernie Kent has figured out how to move a few pieces into place, and not only make them competitive, but fun to watch.

Thursday's 108-99 win over Oregon was one of the best WSU games to watch in years. The Cougars have shown some toughness by outplaying California, Washington and Oregon during the stretch of each game.

But to think these Cougars are going to contend for the Pac-12 title, or even third or fourth place, is probably still unrealistic. Maybe WSU returns from the mountains with a split and a 4-3 record. But even if they're 3-4, just enjoy what you're seeing. Kent has these guys playing hard, up-tempo, and most nights, competitively.

For 2014-15, that's good enough.

The week ahead: The Cougars (9-8, 3-2) head Wednesday to Salt Lake City for a 6 p.m. game against No. 12 Utah (14-3, 4-1). Then at 5 p.m. Saturday, it's WSU at Colorado (9-8, 2-3). Both games are televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

On paper, Wednesday's game at Utah is the toughest of the season (the Cougs get Arizona at home). Utah is a road game at a venue where the Utes suffocate the visiting team. The Utes, No. 6 in the latest KenPom ratings, are coming off a 69-51 loss at No. 10 Arizona. Utah's three losses have all come to top-15 teams, Arizona, San Diego State and Kansas.

Utah has been invincible from the outset in its three home Pac-12 games. The Utes have led by 17 points at halftime in their league wins over UCLA, USC and Arizona State.

In Utah's Larry Krystowiak, the Cougars run into their second consecutive opposing coach who came to the Pac-12 by way of Montana. In four years at Utah, Krystowiak is slowly returning the program to the heady days of Rick Majerus. Only 6-25 in his first season in 2011-12, the Utes were 21-12 last season, and on the verge of becoming a top 10 team this season.

It's become common for Utah to win its games this season by blowout margins. The Utes are second in the Pac-12 in scoring (74.4 points), first in scoring defense (56.1 ppg) and scoring margin (plus-18.2 pts).

There's no secret to Utah's success. The Utes shoot it better than any team in the Pac-12, at .498, and rank third in the league in defending the shot, at .373. The Utes also top the Pac-12 in 3-point field goal shooting at .409. Forget all other statistics; those shooting stats alone will win a lot of games.

Balance is another issue that makes Utah difficult to defend. Even though the Utes are second in the league in scoring, they have only one player among the Pac-12's top 30 in scoring in senior guard Delon Wright (15 ppg).

Other double-digit scorers are junior guard Jordan Loveridge (11.1 ppg) and Brandon Taylor (10.1 ppg). Austrian 7-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl is the Utes top big man, averaging 9.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Wright leads the team in assists at 5.8 per game. Loveridge is 17 points shy of cracking 1,000 points for his career.

The most winnable game of the trip is Saturday's at Colorado. The Buffs come into the week on a three-game losing skid, dropping road games at Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. But of Colorado's nine home games, the only loss came to rival Colorado State. KenPom rates Colorado at No. 81 (Washington State remains last among Pac-12 schools at No. 173).

As its record suggests, Colorado is statistically average in many phases. The Buffaloes are 10th in Pac-12 scoring (67.2 ppg) and sixth in scoring defense (63.0 ppg). Colorado is middle of the pack in field goal percentage and defense, but third in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (.382).

Washington State and Colorado rank 2-3 in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage. The two teams are the two worst, though in turnover margin.

Colorado senior guard Askia Booker is one of the Pac-12's top players, averaging 16.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. In a 68-54 loss to Arizona last week, Booker went 11 of 17 from the field and scored a season-high 30 points.

Josh Scott, Colorado's 6-10 junior forward, averages 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, but has missed four of the Buffaloes' past five games because of back issues. Also to watch is junior guard Xavier Johnson (12.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Utah is 11-0 at home this season, and its average margin of victory is 27.4 points.

  • Colorado is 69-10 at home all-time under coach Tad Boyle.

  • WSU's DaVonte Lacy (pictured above) leads the Pac-12 in free throws attempted (116) and made (90).

    Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel


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