At stake Wednesday is a chance to end a season-long four-game losing streak and a 2012-13 sweep of Oregon State. Also at stake is a chance to sweep its first league series this season, with Oregon coming to town Saturday.
Unless the Cougars turn this season around in a big way, it appears they're looking at either the No. 10, 11 or 12 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. WSU currently is three games out of ninth, and given what we've seen from these Cougars this season, it's hard to envision the 6-1 or 5-2 finish it would take to get past the No. 10 seed.
Frankly, does it really matter? It's hard to say that the Pac-12's current No. 5, Stanford, is a whole lot better than the three teams tied for last place, Washington State, Oregon State and Utah. After you get past the Pac-12's top three or four teams, the rest pretty much look the same. That includes WSU, which could improve itself if the Cougars figured out the final five minutes of a game.
So maybe that's the goal during these final four weeks of the season: find some clutch.
The week ahead: It starts with the battle to get out of the basement for Washington State (11-13, 2-9), as the Cougars play Oregon State (12-12, 2-9) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. After that, it's a 4 p.m. Saturday contest against Oregon (19-5, 8-3). The Pac-12 Network televises both games.
In Oregon State, Washington State faces its favorite team in recent years. The Cougars have won six of their last seven games against OSU, and since 2007, 12 of 15. Last year, Washington State played the Beavers four times, winning three.
When the teams played Jan. 26 in Corvallis, Mike Ladd scored a career-high 23 points to help the Cougars grind out a 71-68 win. WSU trailed 33-29 at halftime, but scored 10 unanswered points midway through the second half to take a 59-51 lead. Royce Woolridge hit two free throws with eight seconds remaining to give WSU a three-point lead, and the Cougars repelled a last-second 3-pointer by Ahmad Starks to close out OSU.
Oregon State has five players that average at least 10 points a game, but there's little doubt the Beavers' key player is beefy senior Joe Burton. When Burton gets involved on the stat sheet, OSU plays well. The 6-foot-7, 295-pound Burton is often a force in scoring, rebounding and assists. In last week's 82-64 win over Utah, Burton handed out 10 assists, scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
OSU's leading scorer is sophomore wing Roberto Nelson, who averages 17 points a game. A player who sometimes strikes fear in opponent's hearts is Starks, who can hit 3-pointers in bunches. Still, this is a game Washington State should win, because the Beavers bring out their confidence.
Oregon, on the other hand, has been a nemesis of late for the Cougars. The Ducks have won seven of the past eight meetings, including a 68-61 decision in Eugene on Jan. 23.
Nonetheless, if Washington State shows up this week, the Cougars might sweep the Oregon schools. Maybe the Ducks peaked a few weeks ago, or dearly miss point guard Dominic Artis, who has missed the past four games with a foot injury. Whatever, this is not the same Oregon team that rolled to an 18-2 record and a No. 10 national ranking.
Artis is expected to return this week, but Ducks coach Dana Altman says he'll ease the freshman back into action. So even if he plays this week, it's unlikely Artis will play big minutes. They need Artis for down the road, even if it costs Oregon the Pac-12 regular season title.
Oregon has the Pac-12's most balanced lineup, as its top five scorers average between 10 and 11.3 points a game. Senior forward E.J. Singler and freshman guard Damyean Dotson lead the way at 11.3 points each. Woods has proven to be a serviceable addition, and Artis seems to be the offense's glue.
This figures to be a fascinating game, because the stakes are significant for both teams. Washington State certainly could beat Oregon; the Cougars darn near won in Eugene three weeks ago, when the Ducks were rolling. On the other hand, Oregon needs a win because its NCAA tournament hopes are beginning to fade. Oregon is moving closer to the tournament bubble, and a loss to WSU isn't going to help the Ducks' case.
Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel
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