Xavier coach Sean Miller and Portland State coach Ken Bone met on March 20, 2009, at a most unlikely junction, midcourt at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho.
Miller’s Musketeers beat Bone’s Vikings in a first-round NCAA tournament game and the two coaches went their separate ways.
But in the randomness of college basketball, Miller and Bone shared headlines a few weeks later: In a 24-hour period, Miller was hired by Arizona and Bone by Washington State.
On that spring day, 2009, you could’ve made a case that Bone was inheriting a more encouraging situation.
The Cougars had been ranked in the top 10 more recently, had split the last six games against Arizona, had boosted attendance at Beasley Coliseum to a record 8,018 a game, had the league’s best shooter, Klay Thompson, and had on order a video board bigger and more modern than the one suspended from the McKale Center rafters.
The Cougars thought so much of Bone that they gave him a seven-year contract – yes, seven years, through 2016! – and he repaid Wazzu by sweeping Miller’s Wildcats in 2009-10.
Now flip ahead to 2014: On Thursday night, Miller and Bone shared a pregame handshake under the super-galactic, $2 million video board at McKale Center. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1. The Cougars are in full-out distress; the school’s most prominent sports booster, Seattle tycoon Greg Rankich, routinely uses his Twitter account to belittle Bone.
After UA beat Wazzu 60-25, Rankich’s hashtag might’ve read #dumpsterfire.
I mean, almost immediately after Bone and Miller completed their pregame handshake Thursday, the Wildcats led 16-1. The Cougars were 0 for 10 from the field.
How’s this for irony: Wazzu was 16-1 and ranked No. 6 when it visited McKale Center in 2008. The Wildcats were being coached (if you can call it that) by Kevin O’Neill.
Oh, how the power has shifted.
Five years is a mini-eternity in college basketball, and it seems like an eternity since the Cougars had Derrick Low, a T.J. McConnell-type point guard who controlled the tempo, running coach Tony Bennett’s deliberate offense with such efficiency that the Cougars went 26-8 and 26-9 in consecutive seasons.
Basketball became so popular in Pullman, Wash., that the Cougars drew crowds of 10,288 to watch Arizona. It was dreaded road stop, and not merely because the Palouse is a winter icebox.
But all of that has changed. The Cougars are averaging a sinful 2,399 at Beasley Coliseum this year.
Nothing exhibited WSU’s modern futility more on Thursday than its last possession of the first half. The Cougars trailed 28-7 and had 37 seconds on the clock, yet chose to dribble away 34 seconds. As the shot clock buzzer sounded, Royce Woolridge fired an airball from eight feet out.
On a night Arizona struggled offensively, the Cougars were almost historically bad.
How bad? In 1980, when Oregon State climbed to No. 2 under coach Ralph Miller, the Beavers beat Stanford 18-16 at Maples Pavilion. That remains the league’s most inept offensive game, but there was no shot clock in 1981 and Miller was so miffed at Stanford’s stall tactics that he ordered his team similarly to stall.
Thursday’s 25-point effort by WSU wasn’t a stall. It was merely ineptness compounded by Arizona’s defensive length and quickness, and by the absence of two injured Cougar starters.
For his part, Miller said he felt empathy for Bone.
“All of us are at the mercy of who we can throw out there,” he said. “And tonight they certainly were shorthanded.”
Bone? He said he spent 30 seconds talking to his club about the game, and then shifted the subject to a weekend engagement against Arizona State.
Two things came into focus on Thursday’s opening night: After winning at Utah, Oregon is going to be a load of trouble for everybody. The league championship game might be UA-UO, March 8 in Eugene, which, fittingly, is the last game on the regular season schedule for Arizona and the Ducks.
Thursday’s other pertinent development was that Arizona State, which had no margin for error, erred.
The Sun Devils were routed at home by Washington, which essentially means the list of serious contenders has been whittled to four: Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and UCLA.
Sweeping Washington State is a must for those serious about challenging Arizona for the title.
Since the day they were both hired, Miller has won 110 games at Arizona. Bone has won 78 at Washington State. The gap is widening.
After Kaleb Tarczewski blocked a shot by WSU’s Jordan Bailey in a 38-12 game Thursday, a collision of 7-footers that did not draw a referee’s whistle, Bone yanked off his sport coat and stormed to midcourt. He confronted official Dave Cartmell.
Bone was animated; he wanted an answer.
Much like the Cougars, Cartmell didn’t have one.