All Good Things Must Come to an End

First things first: Thank you Cougars. Especially Derrick, Kyle, Robbie, Jeremy, and Chris. You have been class individuals on and off the court and have made everyone at WSU proud. Winning measures teams on the court but the teams that become legends are the ones that win with character. Half of the Pac-10’s all-academic team members are Cougars. You never see Derrick Low pounding his chest; you never see Kyle Weaver taunting an opposing crowd. You embodied all of those five pillars that your coaches told you to believe in: humility, passion, servanthood, utility, and thankfulness. Tony and Dick Bennett brought you all here because they thought you could lose together first. Who’d have ever known that not only would you go out winning together, but go out winning 52 games over two seasons.

I had been working on a draft discussing whether or not this team is superior to the 2006-07 Cougs. I think we can say now with a good amount of confidence that they are (with apologies to Ivory Clark). 26 wins despite a loaded Pac-10 conference, a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and possibly the best starting lineup the Cougars have put on the floor in decades.

We live in a society obsessed with happy endings. It surprises me that we love the NCAA tournament so much, considering that 64 of the 65 teams will go out with a loss. But this was a good loss, if there is such a thing. There’s no shame in losing to the #1-ranked team in the nation and a team that will likely be winning the whole thing when it’s over (Carolina is a great, great team). This was the ending we knew was probably coming but one we were hoping to delay. I actually let myself think about beating Carolina, then wondering to myself, “can we really win this whole thing?”. In the end, the Cougs were Rocky (in the first movie). They were King Leonidas. They fell, but what matters is how they did it and how they got there. And I can’t think of a team I’ve admired more in that respect.

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Now that the season’s over, it’s time to do some looking back. I will be browsing over the season in the next few days to put together a list of my Top 10 Cougar Plays of the Year. There are several already that stand out in my mind as candidates for the top spots, but suggestions are absolutely encouraged. I want to compile a list that reflects’ the plays that stood out to all Coug fans, not just me. And thanks to some tech savvy Wazzu fans out there, a few of the plays should be available for viewing via YouTube and other media sources. Stay tuned.

61-41

How sweet it is.

OK, it’s a cliche, I know, but it’s fitting here. Two years ago, this team was last place in the Pac-10. Now, they are in the Sweet Sixteen. They have also guaranteed that for the first time ever, a Cougar team will have been in the Top 25 from the start of the season to the finish.

Think about this: the Sweet Sixteen is the farthest the Cougars have made it in the NCAA tournament since the championship game in 1941. That was before U.S. involvement in World War II. Jack Friel was the coach. My parents hadn’t even been born.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Cougars lost to Wisconsin for the championship in 1941 but held the Badgers to 39 points. WSU has now held Winthrop and Notre Dame to 40 and 41 points, respectively. The defense was tenacious Saturday holding ND to 24.5% shooting, the fifth worst shooting percentage ever for a team in the first or second rounds of the tournament.

It was no easy task, either. According to kenpom.com, Notre Dame ranks 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 40th in adjusted offensive tempo. The Irish shoot 40.5% from three, good for the 6th best percentage in the nation. Saturday the Cougs held them to 17.6%. The Irish fell into the trap of trying to run on a Wazzu team that just won’t let you do it – a common mistake by opposing coaches. At the end of the day Baynes and Cowgill limited Harangody’s offensive impact and Rochestie, Weaver and Low dominated the shooters on the perimeter. They missed open looks, yes, but in the second half especially you could see that Notre Dame was not taking the shots they wanted.

It was an incredible effort yet again. Washington State carried over their best half of the season from the Winthrop game and turned it into their most complete game of the season from start to finish against Notre Dame.

There are so many people to thank here – Dick Bennett, Tony Bennett, the players, the fans who were loud and supportive for both games in Denver, the band, the cheerleaders, the athletic department. The whole WSU community has rallied around this team the past five years and the result is another incredible season, regardless of what happens in Charlotte.

There is one more group to thank for Saturday’s game – the Washington Huskies. Seriously. In the post-game news conference, Tony Bennett mentioned two of our Husky rivals by name and explained how they had prepared us for this matchup. First, Ryan Appleby, whose quick release and distance shooting helped the Cougs prepare to defend Kyle McAlarney and ND’s other 3-point threats. Then, John Brockman, whose thunderous presence and rebounding skill inside helped prep the Cougars for Big East player of the year Luke Harangody. By playing team defense in the paint and forcing Luke out of his comfort zone, the Cougs held Harangody to 10 points on 3 of 17 shooting. Yes, he had 22 rebounds, but that stat was really an indicator of individual performance. On the team side, ND had 38 rebounds and the Cougs had 36. The Irish had 12 offensive boards; the Cougs had 8. That disadvantage had little to do with the outcome of the game. So thanks, Huskies.

It’s fitting that Dick Bennett was in Denver watching the game. Five years after a retired coach from Wisconsin took on the hardest coaching job in the Pac-10, the Cougars are a Sweet Sixteen team. That is one of the greatest turnarounds you will ever see in sports.

71-40

Let me address the Winthrop fans first, as I’m sure they’re upset with the loss despite another conference championship season for their Eagles:

That was the best half Washington State has played all season. This is a team, mind you, that has been ranked as high as #4 in the nation. Keep your heads up, Winthrop. You’ll be back.

Winthrop was held scoreless for the first 6:40 of the second half.

The Cougars held Winthrop to five points in the first 17:08 of the second half. I’m going to repeat that, only this time I will italicize certain parts of the sentence to emphasize just how mind-blowing that statistic is.

Washington State held Winthrop to five points in the first 17:08 of the second half.

Aron Baynes was phenomenal: 9 of 9 shooting, 19 points, 8 rebounds. Big men are so often the difference in games between teams from power conferences and mid-major let’s say “non-power” conferences. Last year it was Ivory Clark. This year it was Aron Baynes. Enjoy it, big guy.

Even the officiating was good: Well, for the most part. Winthrop got a bad deal on that foul where Weaver jumped into the defender as time expired on the shot clock (I hate when they call those). And Weaver’s “flagrant foul” was an absolute joke. He got caught in the air – what else was he going to do – shove Taj McCollough out of the way into a bed of fluffy pillows nearby? Was it a bad foul in terms of playing fundamental basketball? Yes. Was it a flagrant? Of course not.

Whoops – I got so caught up in the bad calls that I forgot to make my point, which was that officiating overall was very good. They let the players play. No one on either team had more than 3 personal fouls. In a game with so much on the line and one group of seniors guaranteed to be playing their last game, that’s how it should be done. Let some contact go, especially under the basket, and call the obvious stuff. There was one point in the first half where I said, “if this was the Pac-10, Baynes would already have 2 fouls”. Perhaps I’m a little bitter about how the conference season was officiated.

I really can’t say enough about that effort. Four Cougar starters scored in double figures, and the one who didn’t had 10 assists. That’s incredible team basketball. Even Caleb Forrest had six off the bench in his homecoming. The only bad news I can find is that Daven Harmeling and Nikola Koprivica still appear to be somewhat limited by their injuries. Harmeling had 0 points in 13 minutes; but he did have 3 assists.

What happened to Winthrop in the second half? Two things: the Cougar defense was stellar and adjusted to prevent McCollough from getting good position near or under the basket. He took way too many jumpers in the second half. The perimeter defense on Gaynor improved, and Michael Jenkins got absolutely shut down in both halves. Kyle Weaver played one of the best games of his career on both sides of the ball. On offense, they made the adjustments necessary to free up Low and then get Baynes and Cowgill the ball off of penetration. Low played an exceptional second half, with 11 on offense and much better defense. Winthrop did hurt itself with turnovers, and especially hurt their cause by missing two open jumpers to start the second half. But the Cougar defense was just too powerful in this one. Like I said, the best half of basketball this team has played all season.

Third Time, Still a Charm

The Cougs have won their third straight over Oregon, 75-70.

I thought WSU had a very good chance to win this game, but I’m surprised at how they did it. If you had told me Wednesday night that UO would shoot over 50%, I would’ve almost guaranteed a Cougar loss. But the offense prevailed by opening a 20-point first half lead that was just enough to stave off a furious Duck comeback in the closing minutes.

There’s something about the Ducks that brings out the best in Derrick Low; last night he was phenomenal again with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting. He was one of four Cougar starters to score in double-figures.

WSU now faces Stanford for a chance to advance to their first-ever Pac-10 championship game. I would make a pregame post, but you know the story here: Lopez twins vs. Baynes/Cowgill, a chance to avenge two tough regular season losses, and a very realistic opportunity to improve seeding going into the Big Dance. The selection committee has said they plan to put greater emphasis on conference tournaments this year; let’s hope it works out in the Cougs’ favor.

Also, a bit of women’s basketball news to pass along: Katelan Redmon will be leaving the University of Washington. Redmon was the young woman who had originally asked to be released from her LOI after Washington fired June Daughery last spring. However, Todd Turner denied the request, and Redmon played for the Huskies, earning a spot this year on the conference all-freshmen team. The only question remaining now is whether or not she will rejoin Daugherty and become a Coug. I certainly hope so.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit the Roman Art collection sent over from the Louvre at the Seattle Art Museum. But I know what you’re all thinking: what does Tyrone Willingham think of modern-day football armor versus Roman gladiatorial armor?

Well, worry no longer! Thanks to the SAM’s free audio tour of the exhibit you can hear Willingham and Governor Christine Gregoire share their thoughts on completely random parts of the gallery. I’m not making this up.

Unfortunately, Coach Willingham does not share his thoughts on why modern football gear fails to protect his Husky defense from an Alex Brink 36-yard touchdown pass.

Finally, about that ‘Scholarship Chart’ link that you see now at the top of the page and along the sidebar. This was a project of mine to help me sort out the basketball team’s scholarship information over the next few years, as it currently stands. Thanks to some help from the Cougfan Forums it is now finished to the best of my knowledge. However, feel free to pass along any information or suggestions that you may have regarding the chart in the comments section.

What A Night

Washington State 76, Washington 73 (2 OT)

In their final home game, Washington State’s seniors didn’t disappoint.

Kyle Weaver led all scorers with 20, Derrick Low added 16, and Robbie Cowgill hit clutch shots down the stretch to finish with 10 as the Cougars won their seventh straight game over rival Washington.

“It was just two teams going at it really hard,” Derrick Low said after the game. “It just feels good to pull the win off for our senior night. It just made it all the more special.”

Hard may have been an understatement. The normally mistake-free Cougars had 15 turnovers against a tenacious Husky defense. The huskies turned it over 19 times on the other side. WSU still managed to shoot 45.5% from the field and had four scorers in double figures, including Taylor Rochestie who had 8 in the extra sessions.

The Cougars honored their five outgoing seniors before the game, with Dick Bennett and Ivory Clark in attendance. Many of the seniors had both parents cheering them on.

Despite the emotion of senior night and the brewing thoughts over the seniors’ place in WSU history, the game made sure it was the story.

Washington opened up an early 7-2 lead against an all-senior WSU starting lineup that looked out of place on offense. Chris Henry and Jeremy Cross were replaced during the ensuing 11-2 run for the Cougars that gave WSU one of the many temporary leads held by both teams. It was a bad night on the boards for Wazzu, who were outrebounded 47-29 and took seven fewer shots than the Huskies.

Still, the Cougs jumped out to a 30-26 halftime lead and controlled most of the second half until a 12-4 run sparked by eight free throws gave the Dawgs a 54-52 lead with 3:32 remaining. Quincy Pondexter made a spectacular dunk off of an errant inbound pass to extend the lead to 58-54 with 1:55 to play. It was the last time the huskies scored in regulation.

Down 58-56, Robbie Cowgill made a layup and drew a foul from Jon Brockman with 14 seconds left. He missed the free throw. Washington never got a shot off on the ensuing possession, with Justin Dentmon turning the ball over on the dribble. Kyle Weaver broke away from the steal uncontested, but missed a desperation runner in the lane as time expired.

Taylor Rochestie was electric in the first overtime. He hit two three-pointers to erase two Husky leads en route to a 64-64 tie. The huskies took a 2-point lead on a Brockman free throw with 32 seconds remaining. Rochestie then tried another three on the next posession, but missed and the rebound ultimately fell to an unguarded Robbie Cowgill for an easy layup off the glass with 5 seconds left. Washington failed to get a shot off before the next buzzer.

Wazzu opened up a four point lead in the second OT before a Ryan Appleby three. The Cougs later extended it back to a four point lead when Venoy Overton fouled Rochestie on an attempted steal. Taylor made both shots for a 6 point lead. Appleby then hit his second of two threes in the second overtime, and the Cougs’ final offensive possession failed to net any points. However, WSU got two men to contest Appleby’s final 3-point attempt with 4 seconds left which rimmed out and secured a Cougar win.

WSU finishes the regular season 23-7 (11-7 in conference) and finishes in 3rd place in the Pac-10. Washington fell to 16-15 (7-11). They finish 8th.

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The seniors left Friel Court to a standing ovation. Signs were waived and a chant of “Thank You Seniors” radiated from the student section. Dick Bennett cheered with a towel draped around his neck to control the sweat and the nerves of the Cougars second straight 2OT game on senior night. It won’t be the last time Dick watches the Cougs this year, as I talked to Anne Bennett at my work who mentioned that she and Dick will be attending the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles.

Big shot Rob – Robbie Cowgill came up clutch in his last game at Friel Court. He was consistent, too: Cowgill had a big shot in regulation, OT and the second OT. His lay-in against Brockman tied the game in regulation and gave the Cougars a chance at the lead with his free throw. In the first OT his rebound and lay-in tied the game once more and forced the second extra period. In the second OT a classic Cowgill jump shot gave the Cougs a 73-70 lead. The huskies would never get closer than three.

Taylor Rochestie is Clutch – but what else is new? The junior had 8 points in overtime, including two game-tying threes and two free throws in the second OT that ensured the best the huskies could do was force a 3rd overtime. Rochestie is what the Cougs desperately needed in the first two years of Dick Bennett’s tenure – a player who wants the ball in his hands in critical situations and then makes good on his agressiveness by shooting, drawing a foul, or making the assist.

Credit the Husky defense with a spectacular performance that forced 15 Cougar turnovers, the most for WSU this season in conference play. Their highest turnover total this year in all games was 17 against Portland State. On offense Jon Brockman led the huskies with 17, Appleby added 16 (including 4 of 10 from three), and Quincy Pondexter contributed with 12.

The Mathup We Always Wanted….? – By beating UW the Cougs secured a 3 seed in next week’s Pacific 10 tournament. The 6 seed with be Oregon who defeated Arizona later Saturday night. WSU swept the season series with Oregon, however they were the first wins either Bennett had achieved against the Ducks. Both games were competitive with the Cougs pulling away in the final minutes. The Pac-10 tournament should be fun to watch; the conference essentially rolls 9 teams deep. In most leagues Cal and Washington are at the least bubble teams. Cal finishes in ninth and may have the conference player of the year in Ryan Anderson.

Here are the matchups:

7 Arizona vs. 10 Oregon State – If Arizona really wants to miss the tournament they can seal the deal by losing to the first winless team in Pac-10 conference play history. U of A finishes 8-10 in the conference but lucked out by getting a matchup that virtually guarantees another win and may make the Wildcats the first below .500 team in conference play to make the tourney. If I’m the selection committee, right now, I keep them out. They should really try to get at least 2 wins this week to secure a bid.

9 California vs 8 Washinton – These two teams would likely win any mid-major conference in the nation. But in this conference, this year, they need four consecutive wins to get a trip to the dance. Will Brockman be healthy for the tournament? (By the way, nice ovation from the WSU crowd when Jon walked off the court) Winner gets UCLA. Yay?

Quarterfinals:

1 UCLA vs 8/9 Winner

2 Stanford vs 7/10 Winner

3 Washington State vs 6 Oregon – see above. Maarty Leunen is the key in this one. UO is the defending P10 tourney champion, and will be desperate to try to get in the Big Dance.

4 USC vs 5 Arizona State – in my estimation ASU hasn’t done enough yet to make the tournament. They need this one more than the hometown Trojans who secured a bid with yesterday’s win over Stanford. Can the committee take Arizona but not ASU, who beat them twice? They shouldn’t, but ASU’s RPI and SOS are awful.

Are Pac-10 Refs Finally Being Exposed? Last night’s controversial Cal/UCLA finish has turned heads of the national media to some questionable conference officiating. With a 80-79 lead in hand and time running down, Cal’s Ryan Anderson was clearly fouled, but no call was made, and the ball went out of bounds to the Bruins. “They clearly tackled me, maybe hit me and I fell to the ground looking for the foul and it didn’t go our way,” said Anderson afterwards. Josh Shipp then hit a circus shot over the backboard to give UCLA a one-point win. However, when the ball crosses the backboard from any direction, it is out of bounds by rule. The Pac-10 made the statement that it went “over the corner” of the backboard and therefore the shot was good.

SportsCenter highlighted the controversy on ESPN, then flashed back to Thursday when the same UCLA team got the benefit of a late foul call on a Lawrence Hill block that was clearly all ball.

It is easy to get disgusted by the refs while in the ZZU CRU. There are few, if any, instant replays (and when there is it may not be visible depending on the seat) , and the bias in the home crowd makes it a comfortable environment to yell at the men in stripes. Despite the bias, I feel officiating is becoming a nationwide problem. WCC refs call way too many offensive fouls. The Big East ruined a Georgetown/Villanova game with a ticky-tack call. The Pac-10 has had numerous breakdowns at Friel, including an Arizona game in 2004 that led to an apology, and missing a clear travel by Oregon’s Aaron Brooks prior to a game winning shot by the Ducks in 2006. Last night the biggest beef I had with the refs involved Quincy Pondexter on two occasions – a foul on Weaver that was borderline intentional, and a clear hanging-on-the-rim technical foul that was never called in a close game.

How can we make the system better? Here are some quick suggestions:
-Let the officials explain themselves after the game. Explain the calls, the reasoning, and admit to mistakes afterwards. After all, refs are human. It’s easy to forget this in a rabid crowd.
-Along those lines, put bios of the refs in the game program. You don’t have to put in pictures or anything else that might make individual refs more identifiable. But, as a fan, am I going to yell “f*** you” to a guy with 2 children? To a guy who volunteers frequently at a local food bank? To a guy who has 5 grandchildren and has been married for 30 years? Make the refs human. Right now they seem little more than guys in striped shirts who are there for student sections to scream at.
-Accountability. Penalize refs for making mistakes, especially at critical points in the game. Make sure the best officiating crews get rewarded with the highest-profile games and games in the conference or NCAA tournament. Give refs bonuses for good performances and good calls in close situations. Some of these practices are already in place, but they need to be emphasized.
-Let them play. What would you have rather seen last night: a game where Brockman and Baynes are unavailable for either OT because of five fouls, or a game where both teams can play the majority of their starters right down to the final buzzer? Exactly. Five fouls are not much – it is too easy for a player to pick up 2 quick first half fouls and then disappear for 15 minutes or so prior to halftime. Either increase the number of fouls allowed to 6, or be a little more lenient with calls that could go either way. Just remember to make the obvious calls and let the players decide the game.

Thanks again seniors, Tony, and Dick Bennett. It was a fitting end to an great five years of Cougar Basketball at Friel. Looking forward to the next five.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Stanford 60, Washington State 53

What can I say about that second half that hasn’t already been said about the Bay of Pigs. It was your classic college basketball meltdown, and yet, after ten minutes to cool down, I don’t feel so bad. Why?

Well, for starters, the Cougs are in the tournament. They lost to a legitimate top 10 team. They should be a heck of a lot more motivated to beat the huskies next week. The loss raised our somewhat maligned SOS, and in the end it’s only one game. The season’s not over. Far from it.

The frustration from the Stanford game is that it was a two-faced performance on all fronts. The cougs were magnificent in the first half, awful in the second. They held Stanford to 22 points in the first, and then got held to 20 points in the second. Depending on how you look at it, Brook Lopez was absolutely dominant, or babied by the officials (realistically it was a mix of the two). Low couldn’t miss in the first half, and could hardly make anything in the second. Stanford’s defense tightened up late, and the only offense they needed was Brook Lopez, who put up a line of 11 of 16 from the floor, leading to 25 of Stanford’s 60 points and far too many chest bumps along the way.

You could say the Cougs “blew it”, but that would be an insult to the opponent. Stanford did everything they needed and had the benefit of every bounce going their way when the Cougars desperately needed some luck. Great teams create their own luck, get their own calls, and find ways to win games they have no business of winning. Stanford is a great team. In part it is why I don’t feel so bad – the Cougs need experiences like this for the postseason. A loss teaches you more about your team than a win, and there is no possible way the 06-07 and 07-08 cougs would be as poised without the seasons of losses that preceded them. Two years ago we still had Weaver, Low, Cowgill, Baynes, etc., etc. The reason these same players lost games then and win games now is that they’ve had the experience. They survived the losses and they grew. It was the same players on the court in both halves. The difference was the performance, and the Cougs sure got a learning experience in the last half of this one.

Player of the game: Have to go with Baynes. He gutted it out, shot 4 or 7 from the field (one of the misses was a desperation 3 that he had to take) , scored 10 points and did what he could in the low post on defense. His fifth foul was a joke of a call. Baynes was the microcosm of the evening for the Cougars – he brought the effort, the intensity, the first-half shooting and defense, only to get plowed over in the second half by a 7-foot NBA prospect and that whole “momentum” concept that the media loves but may not really exist.

Also, the glare he shot Robin Lopez after his final dunk was one of my favorite moments of the night.

My advice to the team: watch the second half game tape, learn everything you can, then smash the thing with a sledgehammer.

Tonight’s rooting interests:

USC at Arizona State – The Devils are desperate; the Cougs need a USC loss to remain in the driver’s seat for third place.

Washington at California – remember that Cal team that swept the Washington schools on the road? Would be nice to see them tonight.

St. Mary’s at Gonzaga – Even if you dislike the zags (which I don’t), you have to like the prospect of them improving WSU’s strength of schedule.

Tomorrow:
Oregon at Oregon State – Beaver nation has suffered long enough.

UCLA at Arizona – After today’s game you have to like the Bruins over Stanford for the conference title. Could a .500 or worse (in conference) Arizona team still make the tourney?