The Cougars are the best of the rest.
It says so right there in the Pac-10 standings. Arizona, UCLA and Washington are headed to the NCAA tournament, unless something dramatically negative happens to one of those three teams. They are 1-2-3 in the standings.
Then there is Washington State, in fourth place at 7-6. Best of the rest, and right now, it's difficult to envision any of "the rest" in the Pac-10 getting to the NCAAs barring a late-season hot streak.
But if any also-ran is positioned to take advantage of a hot streak, it's the Cougars.
The NCAA poobahs wouldn't have a problem putting WSU into the tournament as an 11 or 12 seed, but they need some convincing.
Losing at Oregon is a black mark that needs scrubbing. So does a home split with the Bay Area schools. Nothing says NIT like allowing Stanford to outscore you 45-28 in the first half at home.
BUT THERE ARE plenty of opportunities during the final three weeks of the regular season to convince the NCAA the Cougars belong in the Dance. Win one at Washington. Or Arizona. Both would be better. Go 4-1 down the stretch. Then win a couple in the Pac-10 tournament and get to the finals.
Right now, I'm not sure Washington State is mentally equipped to do it. Six weeks ago, yes. But for some reason, the Cougars can't seem to bring it for an entire week. WSU hasn't won a two-game series since sweeping the Oregon schools Jan. 6-8.
Nothing leaps out at me to suggest that Washington State is going to turn things around and beat both the Arizona schools this week, or win at Washington on Feb. 27, or even sweep the final home series of the season, against UCLA and USC.
But stranger things have happened. I mean, who could have predicted lowly Oregon would be among the upper half of the Pac-10 standings this deep into the season?
I HATE TO put a lot of this on Klay Thompson, but clearly, the Cougars are not the same team when he's in a funk. And Thompson is in a funk. After scoring in double figures in the season's first 19 games, Thompson has hit double digits in just four of his past six games. And two of those four, just barely into double figures.
Starting with the Jan. 22 game against Arizona, Thompson is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, is shooting 36.7 percent from the floor and 29.7 from 3-point range. Prior to Arizona, Thompson was averaging 22.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and was shooting .428 from 3-point range. Even Thompson's free throw percentage has fallen; he is 11 of 19 during the past six games (.578), after hitting .838 the first 19 games.
It's no coincidence Washington State is 3-3 during that six-game stretch.
THE WEEK AHEAD: We'll find out a lot about where the Cougars' head is at Thursday (TV: FSN, 5:30 PM) when Washington State hits the road and plays at league-leading Arizona (21-4, 10-2).
The Wildcats, who beat WSU 65-63 on Jan. 22 in Pullman in a game many thought Wazzu shoulda-coulda won, are unbeaten at home this season.
On Saturday (TV: FSN, 11:00 AM), Washington State goes to the opposite end of the league standings, when the Cougars face Arizona State (9-15, 1-11). Washington State convincingly beat the Sun Devils 78-61 on Jan. 20 at Friel Court. But ASU is still one of those scary teams -- you just know they're going to upset someone in the Pac-10 before it's over.
Washington State's best bet against Arizona is to hope the Wildcats are looking ahead for some payback against Washington. Because the Wildcats are smoking, winners of their past six games. Arizona is winning games in part because of its play from 3-point range. The Wildcats rank ninth in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (.408), and defend it even better, allowing opponents to shoot just .275, second best nationally. Add in that WSU has not been playing the tightest perimeter D of late.
Arizona's game revolves around sophomore Derrick Williams, who has emerged as the one to beat for Pac-10 Player of the Year. Williams is averaging 19.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.
Two days later, it's Arizona State, where the coaching seat of Herb Sendek is getting a little warm after the Sun Devils rocky performance during Pac-10 play this season. Who knew during the Pac-10's opening weekend, when Arizona State beat Oregon 60-55 in Eugene, the Ducks would turn out to be the league's darling, and the Sun Devils the league's dope?
It's no surprise that Arizona State can't score, because Sendek loves to milk possessions. But it is a little stunning that the Sun Devils can't defend. They're among the country's lower half in field goal percentage defense.
Still, the way Washington State is playing, the Cougars can't take any team for granted. Nothing less than a split this week is acceptable if WSU wants ESPN's Bracketology Guru Joe Lunardi to keep looking in the Cougars' direction.
Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-10 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel
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