By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
LAS VEGAS — Well in the back of the MGM Grand Casino, past legions of folks in shorts and tank tops proving they haven’t seen the sun in a long time, is the MGM Grand Arena where the Pacific-12 Conference men’s tournament will take place for the first time.
Washington arrived there Tuesday with co-dependent goals.
The overriding one is to win the tournament. To take the first step toward that, it has to stop Washington State’s Brock Motum when the Huskies (17-14, 9-9) face the Cougars for the third time this season at 8:30 tonight in the tournament’s opening round.
Motum is hot. The 6-foot-10, sidewinding left-hander took UCLA and USC to task last week when the Cougars (13-18, 4-14) became unlikely winners of back-to-back games. Motum averaged 25.5 points per game last week, including a season-high 31 points against USC.
The display left Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar feeling he was watching a different Motum than the Huskies faced earlier in the year. In fact, he feels this is a different Cougars team.
“That team that we beat (in Seattle) a couple weeks ago is not the same team we’ll be playing Wednesday night,” Romar said.
Washington’s top counter to Motum is 6-foot-7 defensive scrapper Desmond Simmons. Simmons absorbs scouting reports like Vegas tourists lose money, rapidly and repeatedly. He tries to nail down tendencies from release points to preferred spots on the floor.
Simmons cuffed Motum enough in Pullman during the conference opener for both schools that the Australian came up with just 15 points. Motum scored 18 in the return matchup in Seattle on March 3.
Simmons leans on a simple priority when trying to stop Motum.
“Just don’t let him catch the ball,” Simmons said.
In the second game this season between the schools, Motum scored the first two baskets of the game with Shawn Kemp Jr. guarding him. Romar promptly replaced Kemp with Simmons. Motum didn’t score again until 58 seconds remained in the first half once Simmons began guarding him.
Despite that, Washington again will bring Simmons off the bench and the Cougars will begin navigating him once that happens.
Washington State coach Ken Bone hopes Motum uses the same measured aggressiveness he used in the second game against Washington.
“He has done a much better job as of late of letting the game come to him and letting his teammates set him up,” Bone said. “Early in the year, he was a little too anxious at that time. I think he has settled down and played better basketball.”
The Cougars recent mini-upswing isn’t assurance of a tournament run. Last season, Colorado had lost three out of four when entering the conference tournament and ended up winning four games in four days.
Washington had won five of six and 10 of 12 last season to enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed. It lost in the second round to Oregon State after having a bye to begin the tourney. Tales like those leave Romar a non-believer in pre-tournament momentum.
When Romar was head coach at Saint Louis, his club lost to Cincinnati by 43 points to close the 2000 regular season before beating the Bearcats by 10 five days later in the conference tournament.
“So, I don’t think (momentum) matters,” Romar said.
Maybe not. He’ll find out today.