And here we are. After an up and down regular season that was only consistent in its disappointment, the Huskies are beginning the Pac-12 Tournament against a likely opponent, the Washington State Cougars. It has been very easy to whine and moan about the Huskies this year, but if there is one situation that puts that failure in a more forgiving light, it’s playing the Cougars. UW may have only barely maintained an over-.500 record at 17-14, including a flat 9-9 in conference play, but WSU was 13-18, including a putrid 4-14 in the conference. The tough year may have stirred up some chatter about Romar’s future at Washington, but Ken Bone may very well be fired after this season is finished. And while it looks very unlikely that Huskies are capable of winning this entire tournament, their only chance of an NCAA tournament berth, WSU is starting off from the very start against a team that has defeated them twice this year.
That being said, just because the Huskies are 2-0 this year against WSU, does not mean that a victory tonight can be assumed. The Cougars, after a horrific 9 game conference losing streak starting on the 31st of January, closed out the regular season with a home sweep of the LA schools. That included a 72-68 victory over the then-23rd ranked Bruins, who then defeated UW 61-54 three days later, and a 65-57 win against the Trojans. While it may be a stretch to say WSU is automatically capable of continuing that quality play in Vegas, it shouldn’t be ignored that WSU’s best play has come right at the end of the year.
Specifically, it also shouldn’t be ignored that both victories included big-time scoring from sophomore Kansas-transfer Royce Woolridge. The 6’3″ guard scored 19 against UCLA and 25 against the Bruins after also scoring 18 in the loss to UW that came before the pair of wins. Woolridge has only averaged 10.9 points per game on 42% shooting, but he is also just finishing up his first year receiving major minutes at the college level. This recent trio of high-scoring contests could be a significant break-out for him, and that streak could continue into the tournament at the perfect time for WSU. That being said, the Cougars fell in Seattle only a few games ago despite Woolridge’s 18, and there’s no real guarantee that he will keep scoring consistently tonight.
On the other side of things, the Huskies also seemed to be playing perhaps their best basketball of the season until the competitive loss to UCLA to end the conference season. Scott Suggs has fully snapped out of the slump that swallowed up most of his year, and while Andrews, Kemp, and Jarreau are all certainly works in progress, Andrews can be trusted as an Overton-esque on-ball defender, and Kemp has begun to score out of the post with what is approaching consistency. Add that to the fact that Gaddy has been a much more steady, efficient player the past month or so (though he obviously still has his own set of limits and frustrating difficulties) and that Wilcox also seems to have struggled through the worst of his own late-season slump, and there’s is reason to be optimistic as a UW fan.
Now that I’ve introduced all these facts and thoughts suggesting that both team is capable of winning or losing for various reasons (yep, that’s why they pay me the big bucks), it’s time for me to actually stick my neck out a bit and predict. I think that despite WSU’s LA sweep, UW is simply the better team. They beat WSU on the road, when the Huskies were a lesser team, and now that they’ve moved forward a bit, I don’t see why they wouldn’t win again on a neutral Las Vegas court.
Simmons is capable of controlling, if not fully shutting down, Brock Motum, so it’s unlikely he’ll go bananas Klay Thompson-style (anyone remember his valiant effort in the 2010 Pac-12 Tournament?) and take over the game. It’s more likely he chips in 16-20 points on 50% shooting. That won’t necessarily win the Cougars the game. Woolridge might go nuts, but probably not with Andrews on him. Even if Andrews starts guarding someone else, Romar will know to switch Andrews on to him if he gets hot. I have enough trust in those two defenders to shut down WSU’s two most dangerous scorers, and enough trust in UW as a whole (and especially N’Diaye) to win the battle on the glass, that it’s an easy pick for me.
UW 67, WSU 59