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That fine line

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 3, 2008

Tony Bennett has been preaching for months that the line between great success and great failure for these Cougars is as thin as it can possibly be.

As much as we all want to tell people that we’re not as devoid of good players as we’re often made out to be, the reality is that we don’t have the same kinds of athletes as the rest of the Pac-10. We don’t have athletes who can consistently overcome their off days at the free throw line or taking care of the ball — or whatever — with superhuman individual efforts based on their giftings.

And I suppose that’s what was most stunning about the past two games. Over the last year-and-a-half we’ve become so accustomed to our boys pulling out these close games that we’ve begun to take it for granted. When it doesn’t, we’re startled. When we don’t play fundamentally sound basketball and it costs us a game, we wonder if all the pundits were right about our team, that they really are just a bunch of overachievers who caught a lot of breaks last year.

I know that my faith has been shaken quite a bit in these first nine Pac-10 games.

Would I feel this way if any one of the 82 small things that could have gone differently against Cal had gone differently and the Cougs would have won? Would I feel this way if Robin Lopez doesn’t hit the miracle shot of his life or if Taylor Rochestie hits a layup or if Robbie Cowgill or Kyle Weaver hit just one more free throw?

Would I feel the same way if a couple of close wins instead of close losses had left us 7-2?

Probably not as strong as I feel it now, so certainly there is some emotion at play in this moment.

But emotion aside, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion about this team ever since watching it get embarrassed by UCLA and Arizona. That is something that just did not happen last year, and it gave me pause that it happened not just once, but twice. I’ve seen some really disturbing things, especially with regards to the defense, that I fully did not expect to see this season. I’ll go into that in more detail in my post tomorrow, but it’s become fairly obvious to all that our supposed “strength” is not our strength.

It’s not that I don’t believe this team is good; it is. The Cougs will make back-to-back tournaments — a HUGE accomplishment by most any program’s measure — and will probably receive a seed in the top half of the bracket. But it’s also become equally obvious that this team probably isn’t as good as we thought.

A lot of this likely would get masked if the Cougars played in a weaker conference, but they don’t. WSU has now lost four Pac-10 games and are staring No. 5 right in the face with UCLA coming to town on Thursday. (The Cougs only lost five Pac-10 games all of last year, in case you forgot.) There certainly is time for redemption — as I was going to write on the game thread that never got done yesterday, beat Stanford and you forget all about Cal, and a sweep over UCLA and USC will have us thinking Final Four again — but time is quickly running out on these Cougs to have the kind of season they dreamed.

Favorable seeding is so very important to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and a top three seed is looking less and less likely. The Cougs are now just 4-3 against the RPI top 50 and lack any kind of a signature win. Yes, road wins against Baylor, Gonzaga, USC and Arizona State are nice, but they’re not the kind that earn you a No. 2 seed. Wins over UCLA, Stanford and surging Arizona are. We’re 0-for-3 there.

This team already has reached unprecidented heights. But as a wise man in my life once said, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, because that’s what everyone remembers. Let’s hope these Cougars can figure out a way to finish strong, because they deserve it.


4 Responses to “That fine line”

  1. drpezz said

    “A lot of this likely would get masked if the Cougars played in a weaker conference, but they don’t.” This is exactly what I think about when I hear Gonzaga mentioned.

    Tough loss, man. I know that one hurt. Maybe the Cougs can do some damage as a 5-7 seed. My worry is that they slip a bit more without the signature win. There’s quite a difference between a 5 and an 8 or 9.

    Bounce back time!

  2. johnnycougar said

    Right on, Nuss. We have indeed been pulling out every close game and I suppose they can’t all bounce our way. We should also remember that we have the ability to go down to the Bay Area and sweep them back. If we look at the rest of the schedule, most of the games are there for the taking. I’d say the ones I’d expect to lose are are vs. UCLA, at Oregon and Stanford – then if we beat ASU, win at Cal and OSU, and continue our recent dominance vs. UW and split between USC and Arizona at home, giving or taking a few we’ll be around 10-8 and around 4th in the Pac-10. That’s acceptable, if a little disappointing, though I have to hope we can beat Stanford and Oregon and seize 3rd.

  3. Nuss said

    It’s doable. It’s just going to take something we haven’t seen enough of this year … great defense.

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