This Week in Cougar Hoops

IN HONOR OF the holiday season, in assigning a grade to Washington State's performance at the Diamond Head Classic this past week, "The Christmas Story" came to mind.

You may remember from the film that moment when Ralphie dreamed of a grade the teacher would give to his paper about a Christmas gift. I was thinking the same thing about the Cougars as they were nearing halftime of the Diamond Head Classic final against Butler:

A-plus plus plus.

Washington State was that good while in Hawaii, beating Mississippi State and Baylor in dominating fashion, then giving Butler all it could handle during the first half of the championship game.

But like Ralphie, a bit of reality set in for the Cougars. Ralphie came out of his dream to find out his real grade was a C-plus. I won't be that harsh on Washington State, but falling apart in the second half on the way to an 84-68 loss to Butler is far from an A-plus-plus-plus performance.

Let's make it a B.

Here's the reason -- don't you think after Washington State's stellar play during non-league games prior to heading to Hawaii, the Cougars had established themselves as a Pac-10 title contender, if not the team to beat?

If so, getting bull-rushed during the second half of the Diamond Head Classic title game doesn't cut it. It might have been OK for last year's Cougars, or many WSU teams, but not this one. At a minimum, a competitive performance to the wire was the expectation.

A tournament championship would have been a nice springboard heading into the Pac-10 season. On the other hand, perhaps I'm being a little critical of WSU's title game loss. The Cougars aren't going to run into many Pac-10 teams as good as Butler. Though the Bulldogs no longer have Gordon Hayward, they remain a solid team.

The combined records of the teams that have beaten Butler (9-4) this season are 34-9.

Still, in order to win the Pac-10, Washington State is going to have win a tough game or two away from Pullman. Beating Butler would have proven the Cougars have that sort of mettle.

Among the positives to come out of Hawaii was the continued strong play of Klay Thompson. The junior wing averaged 26.3 points in three games, and shot 13 of 27 from 3-point range.

Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate? At a minimum. If Thompson continues this type of performance, he's going to move his way into the national Player of the Year discussion.

The week ahead: It's full steam ahead into Pac-10 play, as Washington State (10-2) finished its non-league schedule with the loss to Butler. The Cougars open the conference slate Wednesday at UCLA, and finish the week with a Friday afternoon game at USC.

Washington State hasn't had a lot of success against UCLA. Since 1993, the Cougars have two wins over the Bruins. On the other hand, both wins were in Westwood, in 2004 (55-48) and 2009 (82-81).

Still, it's hard to take UCLA as seriously as most Bruins teams of the past. UCLA (8-4) is better than last year, but the Bruins remain plenty beatable. Thing is, you never know which UCLA team is going to show up. The Bruins who lost to Montana at home, or the team that barely lost to Kansas in Lawrence?

UCLA doesn't have a standout like Thompson, but has five players with double-digit scoring averages, led by Tyler Honeycutt, who is averaging 14.9 points and 8 rebounds a game. Reeves Nelson is right behind Honeycutt at 14.2 and 7.7. Joshua Smith, a freshman from Kent, is averaging 10.3 points and 6.8 rebounds.

The Cougars have been far more successful against USC in recent years. WSU swept the season series last year, and since 2004, is 11-4 against the Trojans.

USC (8-5) is a bit of a wildcard Pac-10 team. The Trojans have a 20-point loss to Rider on their 2010-11 resume, yet have won at Tennessee and nearly scored a road win at Kansas. The Trojans recently received a lift when Fordham transfer Jio Fontan became eligible. In USC's most recent game, Fontan scored 21 points in a 76-49 win over Lehigh.

What's at stake for Washington State this week? Obviously, a sweep would be a tremendous start to the league season, and starting 0-2 wouldn't be the end of an NCAA playoff dream. But, if Washington State is to be taken seriously as a Pac-10 title contender, you would think at least a split is a must.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-10 ramblings at

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