This week in Cougar Hoops

THE START OF the Cougars' 2011-12 basketball season begins with a blockbuster Monday night, as Washington State hits Highway 195 north toward Spokane for its annual showdown against Gonzaga.

If ever a team could use three or four cupcakes to warm up for a game like Gonzaga on Monday night (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.) it's these Cougars, who are getting a bit of a makeover with the loss of Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto. Instead, it's the opener.

This is a good, but probably not great Gonzaga team. On paper, it's a matchup nightmare for both teams: the Bulldogs' bigs vs. WSU's backcourt.

Problem is, the Cougars may not bring some of their advantages to Spokane, as Faisal Aden (concussion) and Reggie Moore (groin) are questionable for the game. In addition, WSU may be without senior forward Abe Lodwick because of a sprained ankle.

Oh, and don't think Gonzaga has forgot last year's 81-59 beatdown by Washington State in Pullman. It was without a doubt the Bulldogs' most embarrassing performance of the season.

WSU coach Ken Bone has given the Zags fits in recent years, dating back to his days as coach at Portland State. During the 2008-09 season, the Vikings handed then-No. 7 Gonzaga a shocking 77-70 loss in Spokane. Then in Bone's first year at Washington State, the Cougars led by as many as 13 points during the second half before the Bulldogs rallied for a 74-69 win at McCarthey Center, prompting GU coach Mark Few to say "that was one of the most courageous performances I have seen in this building."

The week ahead: The season's opening week is crammed with action for Washington State, as the Cougars play three games in seven days, including two on the road. After Monday's game at Gonzaga, WSU plays its home opener Thursday against Sacramento State. The Cougars wrap up opening week Sunday at the University of Portland.

A 2-1 start would be an accomplishment for a Washington State team that's probably going to need a few breaks early in the year.

If Washington State is close to full strength, it will be interesting to see how competitive it plays against Gonzaga. The Cougars' backcourt could make it difficult for Gonzaga to get the ball inside to its strength, 7-foot post Robert Sacre and forward Elias Harris.

Worth watching is a showdown of in-state freshmen, Gonzaga's Gary Bell Jr. (Kent) against Washington State's DaVonte Lacy (Tacoma).

Sacramento State gamely heads back to Pullman after taking a frightful beating at Friel Court a year ago. In what was the most one-sided game of WSU's 2010-11 season, the Cougars took a 27-0 lead on the way to an 84-36 win over the Hornets.

Sac State is coming off a 7-21 season, which included a nine-game losing streak and a 4-12 record in the Big Sky. The Hornets are one of the country's worst Division I programs; they haven't had an RPI lower than 302 the past five years. Sacramento State's top player is junior forward John Dickson, who will contend for team leadership in scoring and rebounding this season. The Hornets may have a sleeper in freshman point guard Dylan Garrity.

But this game should be a win for Washington State. In fact, if it's close, that would be of some concern to the Cougars.

WSU's game at Portland falls into the coin flip category. Overlook the Pilots are your peril, as they are coming off back-to-back 20 win seasons. But if there's a time to catch Portland, early in the year is it, as the Pilots have fielded veteran teams the past two years.

This season, Portland will be relying more on a recruiting class sixth-year coach Eric Reveno says is the best during his tenure, headed by guard Kevin Bailey. Portland's top player is Nemanja Mitrovic, a first-team all-West Coast Conference guard who shot 48 percent from 3-point range a year ago.

Washington State-Portland should be the best match-up of the three opening-week games, because both team's strength is in its backcourt.

NOTABLE NOTE:
At No. 23, Gonzaga is the only preseason Top 25 team on Washington State's non-conference schedule. Take this for what it's worth, but RealtimeRPI.com rates the Cougars' overall schedule as No. 335 (of 344) in Division I heading into the season.

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

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