Drick Bernstine’s health. Malachi Flynn’s leadership. Modifications to the practice routine.
The Washington State Cougars hesitate to single out one thing that’s led to their best stretch of basketball since early November, but they aren’t short on theories that would explain how they’ve managed to win two of their last four games after a sluggish 1-11 start in the Pac-12 Conference.
Coming off a split in the Bay Area, WSU (11-17, 3-13) closes out the regular season this week with a pair of home games, beginning with Thursday’s nationally televised game against Oregon (19-10, 9-7). The Cougars and the Ducks tip off at 6 p.m. in a contest that will air on ESPN2.
The Cougars are essentially locked into the Pac-12’s No. 11 seed and could only slip to 12 by losing each of their last two games. For that to happen, two-win Cal would also have to upset both Arizona State and Arizona on the road – an even more improbable scenario. With the 11 seed, WSU would open Pac-12 Tournament play against the No. 6 seed at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Only two games separate No. 4 from No. 8 in the congested middle section of the Pac-12 standings, but there’s a chance Thursday’s meeting with Oregon could be the first of two in a six-day span for WSU, with the Ducks occupying the No. 6 seed.
The first encounter between the Northwest rivals isn’t one the Cougars will look back on fondly. Albeit they were playing without leading scorer Robert Franks, the Cougars suffered an 84-57 blowout loss in Eugene only 17 days ago – two days after a 32-point loss to Oregon State in Corvallis.
If that was rock bottom for WSU, at least it came with a few weeks to spare.
The Cougars responded by beating Colorado at home and picked up their first road Pac-12 win last Thursday at Cal. Despite dropping games to Utah and Stanford, the Cougars have been outscored 306-305 in their four games since returning from Oregon.
“I think we’ve all just been playing together, playing hard,” Flynn said. “Just trusting the game plans and things like that. Everybody’s kind of been stepping up individually also.”
Flynn’s scoring has been essential to the recent surge – the sophomore has averaged 20 points in the last four games – but so has his voice. Teammates say they’re hearing more of their starting point guard in huddles, “particularly late-game in the huddles where he’s spot on in what he’s telling the guys,” Cougars coach Ernie Kent said.
Bernstine, the graduate transfer from North Dakota, has combated injury all season, often missing team practices in order to stay fresh for games. Bernstine is healthy now and the player Kent calls his “point forward” posted consecutive double-digit scoring games in the Bay Area, with 14 points at Cal and 16 at Stanford.
“What you’re starting to see is a guy playing with more confidence because he feels better about where his body is, he feels better about his game,” Kent said. “And then some of the adjustments we’re making in practice I think is helping all of these guys.”
Adjustments such as?
“More skill work for individuals,” Bernstine said. “It’s not really a team drill, everybody’s going through, getting in what they’re doing in the games kind of thing.”