After losing 10 of its final 12 games to finish last in the Pac-10, Washington State coach Ken Bone told reporters, "I just don't feel like we're too far away."
Not too far away? WSU finished No. 172 in the RPI listings, one spot ahead of Mount St. Mary's, and 17 spots below Maine, the basketball team, not the long-sunken battle ship - although there's a joke in there somewhere about Pac-10 basketball and a submerged vessel.
And yet, inconceivably, Bone is probably right. As historically bad as the Pac-10 was this season, it could be worse in 2010-11. It's not unlikely that the Cougars will return in November as a contender.
Basketball in the Pac-10 is such that WSU's Klay Thompson missed 24 consecutive shots in late-February games against USC and Washington - and still made the all-conference team. Cougars guard Reggie Moore completed the season missing 27 of 32 shots - and still made the all-freshman team.
What's next won't be pretty: UCLA and Washington will almost certainly open the 2011 season ranked Nos. 1-2, or vice versa, but neither projects as a Top 25 team.
"We will get better," UCLA coach Ben Howland said in Los Angeles as his team completed a 14-18 season. "This program will not stay down very long, that's for sure."
It doesn't require any imagination to picture UCLA climbing to the top of the Pac-10 rubble. This league's three postseason teams will strain to match this year's semi-successes.
Cal loses four starters. Washington loses its best player, Quincy Pondexter, and lacks an inside player of note. Arizona State's most talented players could possibly be freshman guards Keala King and Corey Hawkins.
There won't be a returning player in the league widely viewed as a first-round NBA draft choice.
The player most coveted by NBA scouts is probably Washington sophomore-to-be Abdul Gaddy, who averaged 4.1 points and 18.5 minutes this year. And it's not likely Gaddy will be a featured player; the Huskies will be led by Tajuan Porter-type small guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton. They are shoot-first, pass-later players who combined to shoot a composite .392 this season.
Here's how far the Pac-10 has fallen:
Last year, Pac-10 teams won 105 nonconference games. It won 107 a year earlier and 103 two years ago.
This year, it won 78.
It might have difficulty winning 70 next year, although if Washington, Oregon and ASU continue to schedule RPI-sapping pushovers, the number will be meaningless.
There is a sad precedence for this. In 1985 and 1986, the Pac-10 was so bad that it didn't win an NCAA tournament game and didn't have a team finish in the AP Top 20 poll. The league's '85 Player of the Year, USC's Wayne Carlander, was the No. 99 player chosen in the draft.
Now the cycle is repeating itself. Pondexter is the only draft-worthy player, and he is more likely to go in the second round. In a three-year period, 2007-09, the Pac-10 had 15 underclassmen selected in the first round of the NBA draft. The recovery will spill into 2011.
Here's one view of the 2010-11 Pac-10 season:
1. UCLA. Sophomore forwards Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt should be dynamic. Five-star center Josh Smith is the league's most coveted newcomer.
2. Washington. Three sizzling guards and a bunch of guys named Joe. In any other year, a No. 4 or No. 5 finisher.
3. Arizona State. Rihard Kuksiks and Ty Abbott aren't prototypical look-at-me stars, but in the Pac-10, 2011, they will be fearsome.
4. Arizona. Addition by subtraction if Sean Miller purges some of his returning players and can sign at least one more impact recruit.
5. Oregon State. Believe it or not, longtime Beaver Calvin Haynes still has eligibility remaining. He could finally be an all-conference choice on a team of journeymen.
6. Washington State. If Thompson and Moore can shoot straight, the Cougars could climb higher.
7. USC. An unwatchable group of returnees who can't shoot, joined by a weak recruiting class.
8. Stanford. Top recruiting class in the league, and little competition to get immediate playing time, although Jeremy Green is likely to challenge Washington's Thomas as the Pac-10's top scorer.
9. Cal. Defensive demon Jorge Gutierrez will be the top returning scorer. He averages 5.4.
10. Oregon. The new coach will have his honeymoon period spoiled by six returning players who are just good enough to get you beat - a lot.