This Week in Cougar Hoops: UCLA, USC

THE 80-69 WIN over UW has the Cougs at 8-8 in Pac-10 play. So was WSU overrated during the non-league slate, are they showing their true colors in-conference? I say no, that WSU's win over Washington further underscores Wazzu fans' disenchantment, because this season should be heading in a different, more positive direction. But will that still be the case after this week's games vs. USC and UCLA?

Argument: The Cougars are flawed and lack talent, particularly at the defensive end. My take: I won't pretend to say Washington State is a great team, or even a good team. But the Cougars are pretty good. You don't beat Washington twice and bury Gonzaga in one season and not have something going.

The Pac-10 is not a strong conference. Outside of the top three teams, Washington State should have been able to earn an NCAA berth just by taking care of the bottom six teams. The Cougars shouldn't have lost more than two games (out of 12) against Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, California, USC and Arizona State.

With a non-conference record of 10-2, WSU should have improved to well past 20 wins by now.

The Cougars ought to be playing for seeding, not an NIT berth.

WSU wouldn't finish in the top half of the Big East. But in the imperfect Pac-10? The Cougars were good enough to go 12-6 this season.

They shouldn't have lost by 26 at Oregon. Or split a home series against the Bay Area schools. Or become the first Pac-10 school to lose at Arizona State.

Not when we know – or at least most of us know – that WSU is better than that.

That point was driven home with a sledgehammer Sunday night when Washington State proved it is the best team in the state.

For about 20 minutes, the Cougars were about as good as they've been all season. They were physical inside, were effective in defending the 3, and for the most part stayed away from an annoying habit of shooting too early in the shot clock.

It was funny to listen to FSN play-by-play guy Barry Tompkins often excuse Washington's performance as "flat."

Flat? Flat means you don't play with emotion. The Huskies had plenty of emotion; they just didn't play smart. And Washington State had a lot to do with it.

Unfortunately, it's a little late.

The week ahead: Or, maybe not. The guess here is Washington State will have to win the Pac-10 tournament to get into the NCAAs. But why not roll USC ( Webcast/Radio only; Thur., 7 pm,) and UCLA (TV: FSN; Sat., 2:30 pm) this week and start impressing the NCAA tournament committee?

It's not as if there are a lot of great teams in college basketball this season. Get on a hot roll, and maybe, just maybe, a close Pac-10 finals loss could sway the NCAA poobahs.

But if we've learned anything about these Cougars, it's not to project the previous game onto the next. It's been six weeks since Washington State put together decent back-to-back performances, and December since the Cougars did it for an extended stretch.

But give up, I won't, if only because of Sunday's breakout performance against Washington.

Thursday, it's Southern California (17-12, 9-7), which is battling California and WSU for the No. 4 seed. Although I think WSU is secure as a top six seed which would avoid a first-round Pac-10 tournament game – I can't see Oregon winning a game in Arizona, is the reason – the Cougars have a decent chance to land the No. 4 seed. It's not particularly advantageous from a draw standpoint, but as I said above, keep winning big, and who knows?

The last time the two teams played, USC beat Washington State 60-56 in Los Angeles on New Year's Eve. The Trojans built a big lead, then held off a late charge by the Cougars to pick up the win.

Statistically, USC's strength is its defense. The Trojans rank No. 36 nationally in scoring D, and No. 53 in field goal defense. They also take care of the ball, which has led to a lot of competitive games. Don't underestimate USC -- the Trojans have won four straight, including a highly impressive win over Pac-10 leader Arizona.

The regular season finale is Saturday against UCLA. The Bruins (21-8, 12-4) may be trying to win a piece of the Pac-10 title, if they were successful in beating Washington earlier in the road trip. The Cougars can play with UCLA, but they'll have to show up for more than a half as they did on Dec. 29, when a 37-29 halftime lead turned into an 80-71 loss.

Statistically, the Bruins have several features. UCLA ranks among the country's top 100 in scoring margin, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, rebound margin, assists per game and block shots per game.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-10 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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