WSU to nab first Pac-12 tourney W since 2009?

LAS VEGAS – Welcome to Sin City, better known this week as Hoops Heaven. No one expects the young, rebuilding Washington State Cougars to be playing for the Pac-12 tournament championship come Saturday. However, the Cougars will knock off California in the tournament’s opening game Wednesday (12:10 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). Who sez? Yours truly, that’s who.

Obviously, one would be wise not to bet the mortgage on predictions from this corner. But the steady drip, drip, drip of WSU basketball losses in recent years may have numbed you to the fact that Washington State is perfectly capable of bopping the Bears. And if I was a betting man, I’d put some green down on the Cougs, now a 3 1-2-point underdog in the Las Vegas sports books.

The two teams split in league play and tied Colorado for eighth place, but California (17-14, 7-11 Pac-12) comes into the tournament with losses in the past two outings and five of the past six. The Cougars (13-17, 7-11) have dropped four of their past six games, but they’re riding the high of a thrilling overtime win over Colorado last Saturday. WSU is seeded ninth and has lost five in a row at the tournament, but California is seeded eighth and has dropped its last three tournament games.

The Cougars are better on offense, the Bears have the edge on defense. Both teams placed one player on the all-conference first team (WSU guard DaVonte Lacy and California guard Tyrone Wallace). Each team has one player in the top five in scoring (Lacy and Wallace both average 17.2 points), rebounding (WSU’s Josh Hawkinson with a league-leading 10.8 per game, Wallace with 7.3) and 3-point shooting percentage (WSU’s Dexter Kernich-Drew at 44.7, Cal’s Jordan Mathews at 44.0).

Obviously, stopping Wallace is the key to stopping California. Just as obviously, the Cougars haven’t had much luck stopping Wallace or virtually anyone else this season. Wallace, athletic and strong at 6 feet, 5 inches and 205 pounds, smoked the Cougs for 24 points in the first meeting this year and 26 in the rematch.

“He’s one of many guards that have really just torched us this year,” Ernie Kent said prior to Tuesday’s practice.

Kent, Lacy and Hawkinson agree that the Cougars must do a much better job of defending Wallace on drives to the basket.

“He’s very good at creating space when he drives,” Lacy said.

Kent added, “He’s an excellent, excellent player that has tremendous skill. He can go right, left, shoot the 3, drives. Really good at getting into the lane.”

WSU ranks a distant last in the Pac-12 with 76.3 points allowed per game. The Cougars also bring up the rear in field-goal shooting percentage defense, 3-point shooting percentage defense, steals, rebounding margin and turnover margin.

Considering the aforementioned facts, it’s fairly amazing that Kent’s first WSU team won four more conference games than Bone’s last squad. Once the Cougars knock off California on Wednesday, Kent will have four more overall wins than Bone posted last season. Not to mention one more tournament victory than Bone posted in five years in Pullman.

“I think we have great energy,” Kent said, “and I think we’re peaking at the right time.”

The Cougars and Bears are guided by veteran coaches in their first year on the job (WSU’s Kent and Cal’s Cuonzo Martin). Neither school has ever won the conference tournament. The Cougars, in fact, own the worst record in tournament history (5-15). That’s partly due to the fact that Kent’s predecessor, Ken Bone, owns the worst coaching record in tournament history (0-5).

Kent, by the way, is tied for third in tournament history with 11 victories and two titles. Kent coached in the event eight times while at Oregon. WSU’s last tournament win came against Kent’s Ducks in 2009.

A long-sought tournament win would represent one more sign of progress for Kent and his basketball program, but the coach wants more. Much more. The Cougars haven’t finished in the upper half of the conference standings since the 2008 NCAA Sweet 16 team tied for third.

Sez here it will take two years to push the Cougs into the upper half. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • March Madness seems more like March Total Lunacy when seven college conference tournaments – the men with four, the ladies with three – set up shop near the Las Vegas Strip every year. The Pac-12 tournament takes place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Pac-12 is the only one of the four conferences in town this week that does not bring its women’s teams (the Pac-12 women just finished hooping at their tournament in Seattle).

  • The Pac-12 conference tournament initially ran from 1987-90 before returning in 2004.

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