By Jamey Vinnick
WSU fought hard, but once again came up short against a better, more talented USC Trojans team. The Cougars came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, jumping out to a 14-3 lead in the first 3 and a half minutes, behind four quick three pointers. It wasn’t unlike USC to play a bad stretch, though, considering they were down by 10 at the half to Washington earlier in the week. USC started to get hot afterwards, though, and WSU went cold leading to a 38-33 USC lead at halftime. The Cougs kept the game close for most of the 2nd half, but had no answer for the perimeter game of Jonah Mathews and especially no answer for Chimezie Metu, who went for a career high 29 points en route to an 86-77 Trojan victory.
Metu’s day wasn’t totally surprising considering his skill, but it did provide some concern for WSU. Between Metu, and UCLA’s bigs T.J. Leaf and Thomas Welsh, the trio combined to go 34-42 from the field for 78 points in two games. While that is a testament to how good those three players are, it’s also a testament to the fact that the Cougs’ inside defense isn’t particularly strong. Josh Hawkinson is a fine defender, but he’s not strong enough or defensively sound to stick with players of those caliber. As for Robert Franks, he’s not nearly physical enough while Jeff Pollard isn’t big enough and Connor Clifford isn’t nearly fast enough. It’s one of a few things that proves that while WSU has improved by a country mile from last year, they are still not near the level of the Pac 12’s elite.
With the exception of Stanford and Utah, WSU has shown flashes of competitiveness in all of their conference losses so far this year. While UCLA pulled away from the Cougs towards the end, WSU held tight with the far more talented Bruins team led by Lonzo Ball. The same was true against Arizona the week prior, as the Cougs went punch for punch with the superior Wildcats team, until UA got hot and stretched the lead late. Against the mighty Oregon Ducks, the Cougars were tied at half and hung around for a good part of the second half until the Chris Boucher show started. WSU also had a great chance to beat Cal, but a horrible shooting day from the seniors led to a tough loss in Berkeley.
In those games, the better team pulling away at the end is what really separates the best of the best from the Cougars. After just one conference win last year, the Cougs have improved nicely, already winning four this year. The issue is, all four wins have come against the bottom feeders of the Pac. Oregon State is lost without Tres Tinkle, and UW has Markelle Fultz, Matisse Thybulle and a whole lot of nothing else. While WSU will take whatever wins they can, it’s a pretty telling story that all the wins are against teams lower on the totem pole than they are. With a couple extra pieces, though, and some more experience for their underclassmen, WSU is a team who could find themselves competing towards the top of the PAC in a couple years.