PULLMAN, Wash. - In a season with the dimmest of expectations, the subject of "winnable games" will come up frequently for Arizona State's basketball team.
That's because not every game they play is perceived as one they can reasonably expect to win.
Saturday afternoon's game vs. Washington State in this rural, eastern Washington outpost was thought to be "winnable." The Sun Devils contested the game, but didn't have nearly enough weapons in dropping a 64-49 decision.
ASU (6-5, 0-2) needs scoring, badly, from different sources.
Kevin Kruger carried them on his back, scoring 23. But they didn't get nearly enough from everyone else.
"For the most part we played hard," Kruger said. “But we had lapses, and they took advantage.”
Most damaging was the performance of Bryson Krueger, who missed shots from all over the floor, even at point-blank range.
For the game, Krueger shot a dismal 1-for-15, prompting this postgame assessment from coach Rob Evans:
"We've just got to find someone who can play the small forward position. . . . We've got to find someone who can defend the position, knock down shots and rebound. That's a position that's been hurting us all year."
Upon questioning, however, he acknowledged, "We don't have a lot of options. . . . But we've got to do something to get production out of the position."
Krueger shot 1-for-7 in the first half, including two missed layups. He threw up an air ball early in the second half, and things didn't get much better.
In one particularly poor exchange, Krueger had a wide-open 3-point shot that would have cut the Cougars' lead to 41-40 midway through the second half.
He missed badly, the Sun Devils' Antwi Atuahene rebounded but committed an unforced turnover, and the Cougars' Caleb Forrest hit a 3-pointer to make it 43-37.
Then the Cougars started to struggle, and ASU slowly made a run.
Kruger nailed a 3-pointer and Chad Goldstein converted a three-point play to cut the lead to 48-47.
Then the ASU offense went dormant again, as Kruger appeared to be playing with a variety of ailments, most notably the sore right foot he injured landing awkwardly after a shot in the team's close loss to Minnesota on Dec. 5.
Evans said, "He's hurt. He's struggling. But he guts it out."
The Cougars' Chris Henry converted a three-point play underneath to make it 56-49 with 2:14 left. At the other end, Krueger threw up another air ball. The Sun Devils were done.
The Cougars (8-3, 1-1), like the Sun Devils, lack stars. But they play outstanding defense and milk the clock on offense as a way to minimize mistakes.
Said coach Dick Bennett, who used a similar system with much success at Wisconsin, before the game, "If you don't have great players, you'd better have a lot of players contributing."
That's what the Sun Devils lacked Saturday.
TWO HOME COURTS
It's not a secret the Sun Devils would have preferred to play in Spokane, the Cougars' occasional home away from home 75 miles to the north, where there are few students in attendance and where the WSU following is generally less passionate (Arizona blew out the Cougars Thursday in Spokane).
In the days leading up to that loss, Cougars coach Dick Bennett had complained, "We haven't played particularly well there. We haven't been supported particularly well there."
They weren't supported greatly Saturday either; with the students gone on Christmas break, attendance was only 2,506.
ASU has received a verbal commitment from Josh Love, a 6-foot-8 small forward from Hill Community College in Texas.