Exactly 100 years ago today, Washington State was the best college basketball team in America. You can look it up.
On Jan. 27, 1917, the Cougars were 13-0, rolling toward a 25-1 season after which they were voted the mythical national champions.
Their coach, J. Fred Bohler, was held in such esteem that they soon named the school’s gymnasium after him, but yada, yada, yada, the Palouse locomotive soon went off the tracks.
Of the hundreds of opponents Arizona has played over the last century, no team has been less successful against the Wildcats than Washington State.
After Arizona beat WSU 79-62 Thursday night at McKale Center, the Cougars are 16-61. That’s a winning percentage of 21 percent, and no team that has played Arizona at least 10 times has lost more regularly.
What’s the old line: If you’re nursing a hangover from a season-changing win at UCLA, nothing is better than a game against the Cougars, not even aspirin or a sleeping pill.
NAU has a 22 percent winning record against Arizona (27-97) and New Mexico is at 33 percent (42-84). The Cougars always seem to show up just when you need them.
There was, however, one significant change Thursday: WSU wasn’t an easy out. It was nothing like that 60-25 loss at McKale in 2014, and it took Arizona 35 minutes to end the suspense.
A lot of that is because WSU coach Ernie Kent, now 62, appears to be getting better as he gets older. Maybe he’s not the recruiter he was during his 13 seasons at Oregon — the Cougars don’t have anything like ol’ Arizona killers Aaron Brooks and Luke Ridnour — but the coach appears to be getting the most out of what little he has been able to assemble in 2½ seasons at WSU.
I’ll say this: WSU’s most identifiable player is 6-foot 10-inch senior Josh Hawkinson, who has scored 1,240 points in a distinguished Pac-12 career. But Arizona sophomore Chance Comanche outplayed Hawkinson on Thursday, and Comanche only played 16 minutes, making all four shots he attempted, and finished one point shy of Hawkinson, who played 38 minutes.
Somehow, Kent’s team is 10-10, although it might not be a shock if they reached the finish line at 11-20 or something close.
The magnitude of building a consistent threat at WSU isn’t unknown; the Cougars have won more than 20 games just three times across the last 30 seasons. But Washington State athletic director Bill Moos has thrown all the money into the pot, betting that Kent is the best man for the job.
Kent will be paid $1.4 million per year through 2020-21, and the Cougars are so hopeful that Kent doesn’t throw up his hands and walks away midway through his contract that they put a clause in his contract that he will be paid $10,000 if WSU finishes in fifth place.
He’ll get $10,000 if the Cougars finish sixth. Have you ever heard of anything like that?
Kent no longer rages on the sideline as he did during some epic skirmishes with Lute Olson, especially those days at Oregon’s old Mac Court when the two coaches stood face to face in front of the scorer’s table, saying unkind things, as the crowd roared.
On Thursday, even when the refs missed a call or two, Kent remained seated. He has aged well.
The only coach who has lost more games than Kent at McKale Center is Stanford/Cal’s Mike Montgomery, who was 7-17 in Tucson. Kent is now 3-13.
If nothing else, Thursday’s game strongly suggests that the return game Feb. 16 in Pullman won’t be one to dismiss. There’s a reason Arizona has only run the table, 9-0, in the first half of the Pac-12 three times in league history – 1988-89, 1992-93 and 1997-98. That’s because it’s so hard to win on the road, and also, sometimes when you least expect it, at home.
But if Arizona beats Washington on Sunday they will indeed be 9-0 and that’s significant territory.
On the three occasions Arizona went 9-0 in the first half, it finished as 17-1 Pac-10 champions. It might be the most powerful indicator of success in the league.
The other pertinent indicator is that Allonzo Trier’s return hasn’t seemed to bust Arizona’s willingness to play together and share the ball.
True, Trier led the club with 12 shot attempts Thursday, and in his two games now leads Arizona by attempting 26 percent of the team’s shots when he is on the floor. But it’s so close it doesn’t appear to be a developing issue.
Dusan Ristic averages 25 percent of the shots when he’s on the floor, and Lauri Markkanen is at 24 percent. It’s not like Trier is a latter-day Jerryd Bayless, barreling down the court, stopping for no one.
What matters now is that Arizona has won 19 games and it’s still January. If it beats Washington, it will be just the fourth time in school history Arizona has won 20 games before February.
The 1988 team, 20-1, went to the Final Four.
The 2014 team, 20-0, and the 2015 team, 20-2, both reached the Elite Eight.
So far, all the vibes (and all the numbers) are good.