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Winless in the mountains, Washington State aims to end losing skids at Colorado, Utah

PULLMAN – The Colorado-Utah road swing is not one that any Pac-12 team ever truly craves, but few teams dread it like the Cougars.

Since the Buffaloes and the Utes made the Pac-10 the Pac-12 five basketball seasons ago, WSU is 0-8 in games at Boulder and Salt Lake City. And there’s been more than a few ugly ones jammed in there.

Washington State (9-8, 1-4) plays Colorado (11-7, 3-3) at 5 p.m. PST on Thursday at the Coors Events Center in Boulder and travels to Salt Lake City Sunday for another 5 p.m. tilt against Utah (10-7, 2-4) at the Huntsman Center.

Ken Bone’s last WSU team made the inaugural Pac-12 trip into the mountains in 2014, losing to the Utes 81-63 and the Buffaloes 80-76. Kent’s first Cougar team absorbed an 86-64 loss at Utah and a 90-58 defeat in Boulder the following season. In 2016, when WSU struggled to win just one Pac-12 game, the Cougars lost 88-81 (2 OT) in Boulder and 88-47 in Salt Lake City. Last year, it was a 74-70 loss to the Utes and an 81-49 blowout against the Buffs.

So, in the eight games, the Cougars have squeezed in a 40-point loss, two 30-point losses and one 20-point loss. The average margin of defeat has been 20.1 points.

“Well, the last few years it’s been talent,” Kent said. “They’ve just been better basketball teams than us.”

And the other dimension of the trip that makes it such a slog?

“The travel, the altitude, the length of time that you have to sit there,” Kent said. “You talk about Thursday, Sunday games and sitting there. That second game always gets you. I don’t care what order that you play, it’s going to bother of you and that’s the way it is.”

Under Kent, the Cougars have lost the pesky second game by an average of 35 points.

This week, WSU is trying to counter the altitude it’ll see in the mountains with an extra dose of conditioning at practice.

“Probably the first three minutes (is when) you kind of feel it,” guard Viont’e Daniels said. “But it goes away real quick if you’re in shape. If you’re not, you’re obviously going to feel it.”

In the past, the high-tempo Cougars have tried to slow the pace down in one game in order to preserve their legs in the next one. They could return to that tactic this time around.

“That might be something I look at,” Kent said. “We’ll see how our legs are and all those things. It is what it is. You’ve just got to play the games.”

Both the Buffaloes and Utes lost major pieces from their 2016-17 teams. For Colorado, it was nifty guard Derrick White, who always seemed to have his best game when the Cougars were on the other side of the floor. White scored 74 points in three games against WSU last season.

This year, CU is buoyed by freshman guard McKinley Wright (15 ppg, 5.2 apg) and senior guard George King (14.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg).

“King is a veteran player that has been through the league and everything else,” Kent said. “And he shooots it and is shooting it extremely well.”

Utah’s big loss is forward Kyle Kuzma, an inside/outside threat who could vie for NBA Rookie of the Year honors in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Utes aren’t short on frontcourt talent without Kuzma and bring back imposing center David Collette, who’s scoring 13.7 ppg to go with 4.7 rpg. Five Utes are averaging double figures.

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