What to make of WSU's year gone off the rails

THE TRAIN WRECK that has become Washington State's basketball season finally rattled and chugged its way to a place many Cougar fans thought was in their distant past: The cellar. Bringing up the rear in a conference line up considered one of the weakest in years is no small feat. Yet these confounding Cougars, thumped by lowly Oregon on Saturday, did it the old fashioned way.

With lack of consistency on both ends of the court.

The loss to Oregon wasn't a revelation. It was just another solid piece of evidence that this year's Cougs aren't the team we thought -- or perhaps hoped -- they'd be.

Thoughout this Pac-10 season they rarely put two good halves together. Their defensive lapses were head-turning to a Nation nurtured by Dick Bennett. The ball care was less than impressive. And then there's Klay Thompson. The problem with Klay is two-fold. First, he's the only major-league scoring threat the Cougars possess; and second, he goes into the deep-freeze for long, long stretches at a time.

Of course, the fact this team is so young compounded matters generally. But that really can't be an excuse at this late stage of the season. Look around the Pac-10. There's youth almost everywhere and that youth collectively seems to be getting better. An argument could be made that this Cougar team now would get schooled by the one that was playing back in November.

In deference to the post, we've long worried about where the beef is. But right now, the pressing question in this, on a team-wide scale: Where's the growth?

Dissecting it all will be the job of Ken Bone, a career .661 winner as a head coach, who must untangle the mess that produced just three Pac-10 wins in the last 11. WSU is riding a three-game losing steak in which it has averaged 15 turnovers per outing and a woeful 34 percent shooting accuracy from the field.

Saturday's 74-66 setback to the Ducks was especially disheartening because the Cougars actually had something to play for -- two things, actually. One was revenge, given the atrocious technical foul that cost them the W over Oregon in the Pac-10 opener on Dec. 31. The other was seeding. With Stanford's loss earlier in the day to Cal, a Cougar victory in Eugene would have allowed WSU to skip the 8 seed-vs.-9 seed play-in game in next week's Pac-10 Tourney in Los Angeles.

Alas, for their efforts Saturday – or lack of – the Cougs now get to play Oregon one more time. They'll tip things off in the play-in game Wednesday at 8:10 pm PT (FSN). Oregon, whose coach appears to be on the verge of getting fired, is 15-15 overall and 7-11 in Pac-10 play.

The Cougars are 16-14 overall and 6-12 in conference action. That's not too far off from last season, when they finished 17-16 and 8-10. But the chasm is much wider than that. Last season's Cougars -- which of course featured wily old vets Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie -- played a more difficult pre-season schedule and showed grit down the stretch, winning four of their final five Pac-10 regular-season games.

That team also committed 38 fewer turnovers than the current Cougars and dished off 31 more assists.

Think about that for a moment -- 38 fewer turnovers, 31 more assists.

No matter how you slice it, in a conference as parity-driven as this one, those numbers could be the difference between the penthouse and the outhouse. Throw in some decent defense and, well .... woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The reality is that a crimson train wreck will be pulling into the Staples Center on Wednesday. Maybe they string together two good halves of basketball. Maybe Thompson can find consistency in his shot.

Maybe they'll play a little defense and not get sloppy with the ball. It's hard to tell sometimes which Cougar team will show up, but one thing is for sure: If it's the club that we've seen over the past three games, Coach Bone will be getting a one-day's head start on trying to fix this broken locomotive in time for next season.

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