On the eve of what could be a milestone occasion for college basketball in this state, two rivals with variously modest expectations faced off Sunday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
When the day was done, Washington looked like a team finally finding out how to win, and Washington State looked like a team all too familiar with how to lose.
And in the meantime, on the other side of the state, Gonzaga was awaiting the probable news it will become the first school from Washington to hold down a No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press basketball poll.
Because they aren’t recognized by the NCAA tournament selection committee, regular-season poll rankings are basically a hood ornament, gaudy without a function. Furthermore, the No. 1 ranking this season seems to hold the trappings of a Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
But still …
While Washington was beating Washington State, 72-68, in a game the state’s two Pacific-12 Conference affiliates traditionally have used for bragging rights, the West Coast Conference champions from Spokane were preparing to be called the best college basketball team in the nation.
Some bragging rights pack more of an oomph than others.
Given WSU’s 2-14 record in calendar 2013, it’s difficult to fathom how the Cougars nearly upset Gonzaga on Dec. 5. But the then-No. 10 Zags survived a 71-69 scare in Pullman that night, and a few weeks later, the neighbors were on their way toward contemplating the season’s home stretch in different galaxies.
“It’s hard to lose a game, then lose the next game and the next game,” said coach Ken Bone, whose Cougars owned an eight-point lead on Washington early in the second half, only to lose their ninth straight. “But I think our team is handling it well, all things considered. They’re not excited or giddy about it, but they’ll be back at practice tomorrow.”
If Gonzaga is at the top of the college basketball world today, and Washington State is at the bottom, Washington is hanging around in the midway. There’s little chance they’ll follow Colorado’s postseason blueprint from last year (the sixth-seeded Buffaloes secured an NCAA bid by winning four straight in the conference tournament), but then again, if Colorado was able to get hot at the right time, why can’t Washington?
The Hec Ed crowd of 8,508 saw some glimpses Sunday of a team that could rock if it ever got on a roll. Senior point guard Abdul Gaddy resembled, well, a senior point guard, a floor leader with the acumen to deliver the ball from the wing to open teammate Desmond Simmons on the baseline. Here’s what made the pass impressive: Gaddy was double-teamed, and he zipped it with the shot clock down to two seconds.
The Huskies’ other veteran guards, senior Scott Suggs and junior C.J. Wilcox, also had the kinds of games UW optimists envisioned in November. Suggs, a stoic type on and off the floor, scored 23 points while contributing facial expressions ranging from happy to, like, really happy.
Wilcox also scored 23 points to go with his five rebounds and four assists. A sharpshooter who’s suffered through some clunker nights of late – 3-for-13 on Feb. 13 against Oregon, 1-for-11 last week against Arizona State – Wilcox’s 7-for-14 effort against the Cougars underscored a credo of coach Lorenzo Romar.
He’ll never demand a career game from anybody. He merely wants play-to-your potential games from everybody.
“We dropped the ball on some games we should have won, so that kind of sets us back” Wilcox said. “We’re trying to get hot at the right time. We want to take these last few games and get in a rhythm and take it as far as we can.”
Take it as far as going 4-0 in the Pac-12 tournament, and earning an NCAA berth? Hey, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming today.
Gonzaga will dream, too, only from a rare and historic perspective. The Zags soon figure to be ranked No. 1.
No offense, Huskies, and don’t take this personally, Cougars. But there’s only one college basketball team in Washington with the right to brag, and it wasn’t playing Sunday at Hec Ed.firstname.lastname@example.org