By Christian Caple The News Tribune
Witnesses are scarce, but there was a basketball game played in Pullman on March 1, 2003.
It was an insignificant affair between Washington State and Washington, and the Cougars won 98-76. WSU improved its record to 7-18, and 2-14 in Pac-12 play. The Huskies fell to 9-16 and 4-12. The record counts 3,006 human beings in attendance that day.
This is only worth mentioning because both of those programs improved immensely in the following years, and until this season, each game played between the Huskies and Cougars — in Seattle or Pullman — featured a crowd of at least double that figure.
So the 5,796 who showed for WSU’s Feb. 1 upset of Washington at Beasley Coliseum were unwitting participants in a very minor bit of super-modern-day rivalry history, because that crowd was the smallest for a UW-WSU basketball game since that March day in 2003.
In other words, it was the smallest crowd in this series since before both programs started getting better.
It was also proof that at least some level of fan apathy has seeped into this rivalry as both programs have regressed, relatively — WSU (9-18, 2-13 in Pac-12) more dramatically than UW (15-13, 7-8) — in recent years. Attendance at WSU games has been abysmal the past two seasons, and even while UW has brought 7,000-plus to its more notable Pac-12 games this season, that still leaves more empty seats at Hec Edmundson Pavilion than the Lorenzo Romar-era fan is used to.
(A ticket estimate for Friday’s UW-WSU game was not available this early in the week, but attendance is not likely to be lower than it was for the first game in Pullman.)
Romar and Ken Bone, good friends and former co-workers who will again coach against each other Friday, both know this rivalry — competitive as it still is — isn’t what it was when their teams won more often.
“It has been cyclical, I think” Romar said.
Beginning in 2004, either UW or WSU advanced to the NCAA tournament in eight consecutive seasons— UW from 2004-2006 and 2009-2011, and WSU in 2007 and 2008.
Barring a Pac-12 tournament miracle, this will be the third consecutive season without an NCAA appearance for either team, the longest such stretch since 2001-03.
“When that success is not there, whether it’s for one team or both, to the outside it’s not as big of a rival game,” Bone said Tuesday. “To our kids and coach Romar’s guys, it’s just as important, but to the outside it probably doesn’t look as important.”
Each team lacks the star power that made this matchup so entertaining a few years back. C.J. Wilcox and DaVonte Lacy are quality basketball players and fun to watch, but that dynamic doesn’t quite have the same appeal as, say, Isaiah Thomas vs. Klay Thompson.
“I’ve always felt that rivalries are at their best when both teams are playing at a high level,” Romar said, echoing Bone. “I think several years ago both teams might have been in the top 20, for a couple of years there. I think there’s cycles for how much the rivalry is heated up or not heated up.”
That both programs are experiencing relative lulls at the same time is probably a coincidence, given the setbacks each has endured. WSU has lost a point guard prior to each of the last two seasons (Reggie Moore, then Danny Lawhorn), and Bone has struggled to find replacements. UW has lost players to early NBA entry (Thomas, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, foregone as that conclusion might have been) and injury (Jernard Jarreau), and hasn’t recruited at the same level as it did in the mid-2000s.
“I do know a few years back there was a ton of talent coming out of Seattle, no doubt about it, so potentially that has something to do with it,” Bone said, “but I think more it’s just coincidental they’re not quite the team they were the last few years, and neither are we.”
Fewer are watching as a result.