Huskies, Cougars are part of the college hoops party this week in Las Vegas, which has made itself some coin by convincing losers they could be winners.
LAS VEGAS – It is here, in this neon-infested mecca of gambling, that the only safe bet is one based on the simple fact that most visitors will leave town lighter in their wallets and heavier in their buffet-filled bellies. This just in: All those glittering casinos on the Las Vegas Strip do not prosper by making winners out of the vast majority of bettors. The casinos bet on its guests to lose. That’s usually a wise bet.
No fewer than 40 higher institutions of losing . . . er, learning have deemed it so essential to teach students about the dangers inherent with visits to Sin City that they now gather their basketball teams in Las Vegas each March for conference tournaments.
Sixty-eight men’s and women’s teams do battle, and in the finest tradition of Las Vegas, 61 will leave as losers. Those figures would be higher, but the Pac-12 has at least temporarily decided its women’s teams are best served by dealing with the rain in Seattle rather than dealing with a city where strip club patrons have been known to let it rain indoors.
The Pac-12, second-class citizens for so many years in Lakers Land at Staples Center, has moved its annual men’s hoops hoedown from L.A. to L.V. The West Coast Conference just left town, but the Pac-12 goes head-to-head and ticket-window-to-ticket-window with the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the WAC and the Mountain West would hardly be seen as worthy rivals of the Pac-12. We have entered a new age in college basketball, however, and the Pac-12 is struggling to move back into the prestigious neighborhood where it once resided in hoops.
Our state’s Pac-12 entries have not helped matters any this season. As penance, the 17-14 Huskies and 13-18 Cougars are matched in the final game of Wednesday’s first day of action at the MGM Grand Garden Arena (8:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
In a city where one can place a wager on everything up to and quite possibly including how long it takes cheese to melt on a hamburger patty, the Huskies opened as 2½-point favorites and quickly dropped to 1½.
Perhaps word arrived late from Pullman that Cougars starting point guard Mike Ladd has recovered from the knee injury – well, recovered enough to play in WSU’s previous game – that sidelined him March 3 at Washington.
More likely it took a few days for the bookies to fully comprehend that the Cougars, whose losing streak reached nine games at Washington, have since won two in a row. Such is the level of excitement/desperation in Cougarville over the team’s first two-game winning “streak” since December that the Washington State press release for the conference tournament begins with – in capital letters – WSU LOOKS TO CONTINUE HOT STREAK.
Geesh. It’s not like it’s been 72 years since the Cougars last won a conference championship in men’s basketball.
What? Oh. Never mind.
The Cougars are seeded 11th after finishing in the Pac-12 cellar with Oregon State. The Huskies are seeded sixth after tying three teams for sixth.
Regardless, all bets are off – well, not in Vegas, obviously – at the Pac-12 tourney. Just last year, sixth seed Colorado won four games in four days to earn the conference’s free ticket to the Big Dance.
“This is always an exciting time,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said wistfully. “The only thing you can predict is that everything is going to be unpredictable.”
That said, it is difficult to foresee Washington or WSU winning the Pac-12 lottery in Vegas. Going 4-for-4 at a basketball tournament is far more difficult than going 4-for-4 on the baseball diamond, although the feat has been equally elusive for the Mariners in recent years.
The Huskies like to think they hold an edge over the Cougars, since they’ve won the past five meetings. On the other hand, Washington is coming off a loss to the league-champion UCLA Bruins, who were bludgeoned three nights earlier in Pullman. Also, WSU’s two losses to Washington this season came by margins of five and four points.
Romar and Cougars coach Ken Bone are old friends and allies from Bone’s days as an assistant to Romar in Montlake. They know each other well, and they know each other’s players well.
Of course, even casual observers can ascertain that Wednesday’s outcome may come down to the ability of team scoring leaders Brock Motum and C.J. Wilcox to fill baskets. Also worth noting is that Scott Suggs of Washington and Royce Woolridge of Washington State have sizzled from the perimeter in several recent games.
Motum, a senior forward who has climbed to fifth on WSU’s all-time scoring charts despite starting only two years, exploded for a season-high 31 Saturday in a blowout win over USC. The 6-foot-10 Aussie is hot in pursuit of a second straight Pac-12 scoring title, his 18.4 average trailing only the 18.6 mark of California’s Allen Crabbe.
Wilcox, whose sweet jumper can go sour for long stretches, ranks sixth in scoring at 16.8. The junior guard scored just eight points on 3-for-13 shooting against UCLA, but his coach remains supportive.
“With shooters, you’re always saying, ‘Keep shooting,’” Romar said. “I spoke to C.J. about it: ‘If you’re on, keep shooting. If you miss, shoot until you’re on again. Whatever you do, keep shooting.
‘“You have to shoot. Take that 11th shot after the 10 didn’t go in.”’
Wilcox seems to have taken Romar’s message to heart, since he’s launched 439 shots – 147 more than Abdul Gaddy, the second-busiest gunner on the Dawgs. The only Pac-12 player with more field-goal attempts is Motum, who has taken 455 shots. That’s 195 more than Woolridge, the next Coug on the shots chart.
Obviously, Motum is a determined fellow. The same can be said for the Cougars as a whole. Even when the losses kept piling up, and speculation continued to mount about Bone’s employment status after Vegas, Motum and his teammates never stopped oozing optimism.
“It’s a testament to the character of the guys in our locker room and our coaching staff, the ability to improve and not give up on any point in the season,” Motum said.
That season will come to an end Wednesday night if WSU loses. In fact, you can bet on it.