This has been a curious, interesting, boring, dangerous (pick your favorite adjective) stretch for WSU. From Dec. 9 to Jan. 5, the Cougars will have played just four games. It's probably safe to assume this has been the most inactive 27-day period for any Division I men's basketball program this season.
It's also a time period that weeks from now could be viewed as the most important period of growth for the Cougars this season.
None of the four opponents during this 27-day stretch were world class; in fact, only Washington can be considered middle class. For a disinterested, unmotivated team, this is a period that could have killed the Cougars.
"Jackson State, Buffalo, Idaho State? It's the Christmas season! We can afford to coast. Pass me a turkey leg, will ya?"
Instead, it appears Washington State took these near four weeks seriously. The proof – and you may find this hard to believe – was the Cougars' 74-39 thrashing of Idaho State last Saturday.
Now, Idaho State is hardly anyone's measuring stick. The Bengals are 1-10, after all. But despite their record, they've been competitive. Eight of their 10 losses were by 15 points or fewer. The only school to give Idaho State a barnyard whipping is Oregon.
That is, until the Bengals met Washington State.
The Cougars could have ho-hummed this one. Neutral-site game versus a dull opponent. Instead, Washington State hammered the Bengals with defense until the Cougars got their offense going. Only once did Idaho State score back-to-back baskets. Washington State held the Bengals' top two scorers this season – Melvin Morgan and Tomas Sanchez – to a combined eight points.
If the 71-69 loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 5 was Washington State's best performance of the season, the Idaho State thumping was the Cougars' best showing of 2012 against a bad program.
I'm not predicting a Pac-12 title, or even an NCAA appearance for the Cougars. But clearly, this team is miles better defensively than its been the past couple year heading into the league season.
It starts with defense, right?
The week ahead: Washington State (9-4) kicks off the Pac-12 season on Friel Court in Beasley Coliseum at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Washington (ESPNU).
These are not the Huskies (8-5) of recent years. UW isn't offensively brilliant, as it's often been under coach Lorenzo Romar, nor does it possess a marquee NBA-ready talent like a Jon Brockman or Terrance Ross.
UW comes into Saturday's Apple Cup matchup off a loss to Connecticut, which ended the Huskies' four-game winning streak. Washington has played a decent non-league schedule; nine of their 13 opponents currently have winning records. Even UW's 63-62 loss to Albany on Nov. 13 that was widely mocked now doesn't look so bad. The Great Danes are 11-3 and could be NCAA tourney-bound.
Junior guard C.J. Wilcox is having a career year in Seattle. He leads the Huskies in scoring at 18.5 points a game, and eight times has exceeded 20 points, with a season-high of 28 against Colorado State. Wilcox comes into Saturday's game off a season-low five-point performance against UConn. Wilcox shoots nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, and 47 percent overall from the floor.
The bulk of Washington's scoring comes from four players who average in double digits: Wilcox (18.5 ppg), Scott Suggs (13.7), Abdul Gaddy (12.8) and Aziz N'Diaye (10.8).
Defensively, the Huskies are just average. They rank No. 183 (of 345 teams) in field goal percentage defense at 42.3 percent. Among Pac-12 teams, only USC has a worst scoring margin than Washington at plus-3.3 per game.
Statistically, Washington-Washington State doesn't figure to be sloppy. Both teams are among the country's worst in steals (UW is No. 336, WSU No. 338), and the Cougars and Huskies are 2-3 in the conference in fewest turnovers.
Washington leads the all-time series 174-100. Of late, the Huskies have held the upper hand over Washington State, winning the past three games and seven of nine. Prior to that, the Cougars dominated UW, running off seven consecutive wins from 2006-08.
Last year, Washington won 59-55 in Pullman and 75-65 in Seattle. The last time WSU beat the Huskies was 2011, an 80-69 win in Seattle.
Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel
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