Well the most brutal road trip of the year is in the books for the Cougs and what transpired was pretty much two by the book affairs. First USC...although the Trojans were a slight favorite at home, anyone who really knows the Cougs is not surprised by the way they handled USC. The Trojans feature one mega talented superstar (how appropriate for tinsel town) and a slew of young, athletic side-kicks. WSU features a TEAM of experience, battle hardened and defensive minded individuals who know how to handle pressure and create pressure. A Coug blowout was not hard to see.
Contrast the USC game with the HUGE game against UCLA and my pre-season prognostications become fairly clear. As a reminder, I picked WSU to beat USC both times and lose to UCLA both times this year. The difference between USC and UCLA is three-fold pertaining to their ability to beat the Cougs. USC is 1. very young; 2. disorganized on offense and; 3. average on defense. By contrast, UCLA is more experienced (notwithstanding Kevin Love) with players left over from two Final Four teams. UCLA is also fundamentally sound on offense and most importantly, they are aggressive and disruptive on defense. In short, UCLA is a mirror image of the Cougs....only with better athletes.
I took away two other impressions from the games against USC and UCLA. First, it was very interesting to compare O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love. O.J. is the real deal and will go high in the NBA draft. His ability to score is phenomenal. His talent also gets him in a great deal of trouble (terrible shot selection) and negates the contributions of his teammates. His me-first, shoot-anytime, anywhere mentality takes away all team cohesion and makes USC a bunch of guys basically playing pick-up ball. All their wins will come through pure athletic talent and when they face a team minded team, they will have real trouble, just as they did with the Cougs.
Kevin Love is also the real deal. What separates him from O.J. is that he plays more like a Senior than a Freshman. His passing skills, footwork, patience on offense and discipline on defense is truly a joy to watch (until he uses those skills to beat the Cougs!). He reminds me of Bill Walton, only with a bigger frame and softer hands. If he is not the first pick in the draft, I will be shocked.
The other interesting observation from this weekend was the way the Cougs handled themselves in the UCLA game. Through the first ten minutes, UCLA played smothering defense and held the Cougs to 8 points. Eight points!!!
UCLA's defense deserves most of the credit for the terrible WSU offensive start, but not all. Several WSU players missed multiple lay-ups and the whole team was clearly rattled for most of the first half. This was the first truly monster game for the Cougs since the NCAA tournament last year and in the first half, they did not handle it well.
By contrast, the Cougs were a totally different team in the second half. They played toe-to-toe with UCLA for most of the second half and although they could not close the gap until a barrage of threes at the end, they never, repeat NEVER gave up. Most of the pundits dismiss the end as a streak of luck for the Cougs, but I saw it differently. All year, this team talks about how they believe in each other and believe they can endure anything and still come back to win. And they nearly did win after being down by 12 points with less than two minutes left. As each three ball went up, you could see the supreme confidence from each player that they were still going to prevail against extreme odds.
Losing is never good. Never. But, you can learn from a loss like this. In fact, it can prepare the Cougs for the next huge game and more importantly, it can harden this team and help pave the way for a deep NCAA run.
Next up: Can the Cougs hold serve at home?