WSU HOOPS: Oddsmakers miss the big picture

LAS VEGAS oddsmakers are putting the Cougars pretty much where they always put them this time of year. Cal is a four-point favorite against the Cougs on Wednesday in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament and Bovada, the online casino, says no teams are longer shots to win the tourney than WSU and USC, at 500 to 1 each. Those numbers, however, mask what WSU achieved this season.

The Cougars pulled even with every program in the conference except Arizona this season.

Think about that for a moment. A team that couldn’t get out of its own way in 2013-14 and 2012-13, either defeated or played every team in the league close – other than ‘Zona – at least once.

The Cougs notched victories over Stanford, Cal, Washington, Oregon, Arizona State, USC and Colorado. They nearly knocked off Utah and UCLA in the last two weeks, and they took Oregon State, which had beaten them decisively in the first meeting, down to the wire in the second go round.

Count ‘em up. That’s 10 teams in the conference that the Cougs pulled even with or narrowed the gap on, in Ernie Kent's first season.

Only Arizona, the No. 4-ranked team in the land, remained head-and-shoulders above the Cougs this season. The Cats defeated WSU 86-59 on Feb. 15, and are largely responsible for Bovada’s 500 to 1 odds on the Cougars winning the conference tourney -- the winner of Cal-WSU faces Arizona on Thursday.

In a brief conversation with CF.C last week, Kent was matter-of-fact when asked to assess his program’s competitiveness in the conference. “We’ve caught a lot of teams in this first year, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Kent then went down the list of the top four teams in the conference to illustrate how far the program has come since winning three Pac-12 games last season and four the year before that.

Arizona: “There’s “a gap with the top school in the conference.”
Utah: “We defended the heck out of Utah (on Mar. 5) and had an opportunity to grow the program with a win but didn’t close it out.”
Oregon: “We beat them (in the first game).”
UCLA: “We played a great game but didn’t close out.”

Our conversation with Kent was the day before the Cougars played Colorado in the regular-season finale. The Buffs, he noted, dominated the Cougars in Boulder on Jan. 24 without two of their best players.

Yet on Saturday, against a healthy Buffs team, the Cougars led most of the way and won in dramatic fashion, taking it in overtime 96-91.

Naysayers will point out that this is a down year in the Pac-12, so the Cougars should have been more competitive than in years past.

Nonsense.

You compare yourself to the competition you face. There is no other relevant measure. In 2014-15, Cougar basketball showed itself to be a player again in Pac-12 hoops.

ON A SIDE NOTE, THE PAC-12 ALL-CONFERENCE team was unveiled yesterday and Cougar senior DaVonte Lacy was named to the first team. He’s the first Cougar to pick up the first-team honors since Brock Motum in 2012. Last season Lacy was an honorable mention choice.

This time around, WSU sophomore Josh Hawkinson was named honorable mention, as well as the league’s most improved player. While there is no debate about Hawkinson’s improvement – which should put him among the top two or three for similar national awards – the fact he was named honorable mention all-conference is just mind-boggling.

The first team is composed of 10 players and the second team is composed of five. How Hawkinson wasn’t among the league’s top 15 is beyond curious. He led the conference in rebounding (10.8) and it wasn’t even close. He was tenth in scoring, at 14.7 points per game.

Indeed, he was the only player in the conference to average a double-double in rebounding and scoring. But his story doesn’t end there. He was also No. 9 in shot blocking, No. 10 in field-goal percentage and No. 3 in free-throw percentage.

I have no idea what exactly a guy needs to do to be considered among the top 15 in the conference by the voters, but Hawkinson did more than enough.

NOTABLE:
The Cougars and Bears tip off in Las Vegas on Wednesday at 12:10, with TV coverage on the Pac-12 Networks. The winner will then go at it against Arizona on Thursday in another lunch-time tilt at 12:10.

Washington State finished the regular season leading the Pac-12 in assists per game (14.87).

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