USC 80, WSU 70: Three thoughts

Another great effort that comes up just short.

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To the basketball!

The Cougs lost another heartbreaker last night, this time to their ongoing heartbreaker nemesis, USC. Yeah, we beat the Trojans up in Pullman earlier this year, but that broke a 12-game losing streak against them; both games last season were decided by just two points.

If you only looked at the final score of this one, you’d probably wonder how I could call this a “heartbreaker.” But if you were able to watch the game, you know that the final margin definitely doesn’t tell the story here: WSU had a 65-64 lead with four minutes to play, and at that point, kenpom.com put the Cougs’ win probability at just a shade over 50%. When TJ Bamba hit his only 3-pointer of the game with two minutes to play, he pulled the Cougs to within a point.

With 60 seconds to play, WSU trailed by just three.

Forty five seconds later, the margin was 10.

Sigh.

Three Thoughts

STILL CAN’T CATCH A BREAK: As Craig likes to say, if this team didn’t have bad luck, it would have absolutely no luck at all. A couple of hours before tipoff, we were treated to the news that WSU would be without DJ Rodman, Adrame Diongue and Dylan Darling because of an unspecified illness.

  • You surely know that Rodman is a starter and has become an indispensable part of this program’s identity. He probably would have been pretty useful! Especially when Andrej Jakimovski picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half …

  • If you listened to this week’s podcast, you heard us talk at length about how Diongue has quickly become an impactful defensive sparkplug in his limited minutes. He might have only played 10 minutes, but that would have been 10 minutes that Mouhamed Gueye wasn’t having to do all the big-man work on both ends — and he probably would have blocked a shot or two in the process. (The Cougs finished with zero.)

  • Darling, meanwhile, plays a really important role as a reserve point guard, bringing really good on-ball defense (maybe the best on the team, already?). I don’t know how much he would have played — I don’t think this was a particularly good matchup for him — but even 10 minutes would have lessened the load on some other guys.

Already with two players out for the year before the season even began and another who went back to France in December after deciding college just wasn’t for him, WSU was left with just seven scholarship players at tipoff.

To play a really good team — USC is going to be in the NCAA tournament — on the road as tight as they did is actually kinda incredible. The short rotation eventually showed up in the fouls; there were some marginal “playing on the road” fouls that were certainly frustrating, but I actually think most were legit and could credibly be chalked up to both the incredible energy being expended by just a handful of guys and also one guy (Carlos Rosario: 20 minutes, 5 fouls) who probably doesn’t play at all last night if Rodman is available.

I know a lot of fans get tired of hearing these kinds of qualifications1, but it simply cannot be ignored what this team has done this year to not completely fall apart under the rough circumstances they've faced. Kyle Smith has done one hell of a coaching job this season and last night was no exception.

I know the results suck. I know it wasn’t what we all wanted and hoped for this season. But this team is admirable on its own merits. What they are accomplishing in the face of all this adversity is a continued indicator that the program is on the right track. Don’t get impatient.

MARVELOUS MOUHAMED: Sometimes when teams play at what seems like a severe circumstantial disadvantage, players can elevate their play for a game. This happens pretty regularly in the NBA, but those guys are pros. In college, teams are just as likely to hang their heads and get completely obliterated. (See: California Golden Bears under Mark Fox.)

The Cougs, though, amped up the focus and came out on fire — particularly Mouhamed Gueye, who continues to show that he might end up in the NBA sooner rather than later. With his team facing its greatest challenge of the season, he led them to a performance that was competitive until the very final minutes. That’s remarkable.

Gueye hit his first six shots (including a gorgeously pure 3-pointer) and seven of his first eight to power the Cougs to an early 13-2 run, giving WSU a 13-point lead that was capped by his and-one about 10 minutes into the game. USC is good and resilient — the Trojans immediately answered back with a 17-2 run of their own to take the lead — so it didn’t last, but still: WSU trailed by just two at halftime and remained in the game until the very end, and Gueye deserves the bulk of the credit for that on a night when TJ Bamba, Jabe Mullins, and Kymany Houinsou combined for just 13 points in their 70 minutes.

Seeing Gueye develop into this kind of player has been absolutely remarkable. He finished with a career-high 31 points to go with 12 rebounds and three assists, doing damage from all over the floor. He hit the midrange shot he’s become so good at, he put the ball on the floor a few times and got to the rim, he finished a couple of nice passes from teammates, and of course he got some buckets on putbacks after offensive rebounds. And those three assists … man, there were a couple of eye-popping passes in there. He’s just so damn good.

Gueye isn’t yet able to do this every night — it was just a couple of weeks ago that he had a zero-point outing at Colorado — but don’t lose the forest for the trees: The kid is just a sophomore, and one who jumped from the fourth or fifth option as a true freshman to the go-to-guy this year. To go from “hey go get some offensive rebounds and dunks” to “we’re going to run every offensive possession through you” is going to be rough for any player, but particularly so for bigs, who usually need time to develop both a full array of moves and the decision-making chops that guards pick up in their youth.

Mo is so very legit. I don’t know if it’s enough for him to make the jump to the NBA next season — his defense has been a bit spotty this year as he’s adjusted to his new offiensive role and played much heavier minutes — but he’s going to end up there eventually.

SHOOTERS SHOOT: Raise your hand if you are very, very tired of seeing Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson? All of you? Yes, that’s all of you. OK. Good. We’re on the same page.

There’s a tendency in games with fine margins to try and parse a play here or there where the team could have done something — anything! — different to change the eventual outcome. Sometimes, that’s a worthwhile exercise2, but sometimes ... man, sometimes you just get beat. And last night was one of those times.

Case in point: With USC leading by three with just under a minute to go, the Trojans went not to Ellis, but to Peterson. The 6-foot-9 wing had had his way with just about every defender the Cougs had put on him — and they really did try just about eery defender. He did particular damage by shooting fadeaways over shorter guys such as Justin Powell and Jabe Mullins.

For this final possession, Gueye took the assignment. By golly, Peterson was either going to have to give up the ball or shoot over a very tall man. Peterson — who had drawn a cheap foul on Gueye earlier by getting him off his feet — put every move in his dribbling arsenal on Gueye inside the arc. Mo stuck with him every inch. He wasn’t fooled by any of it, and was in great position from start to finish, forcing Peterson back to the 3-point line. Left with no other options and the shot clock nearing zero, Peterson deftly stepped back and feathered a 3-pointer just past the finger tips of Gueye.

Swish. Ballgame.

It was one of those plays that you see often in the NBA, where neither player could have done anything better, and the offense just gets the better of the defense. It sucks, and it’s hard, but you have to just tip your cap. You really do.

And thank God you’re never going to see that guy on the court against your team again.

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