This Week in Cougar Hoops

MIDWAY THROUGH THE Pac-12 season, things are going about as well as reasonable Coug fans can expect from their Washington State men's basketball team. The overall and league records are near .500, putting WSU a mini-win streak away from seriously contending for a top four Pac-12 placing and a first-round league tournament bye.

In fact, the Cougars (10-11, 4-5) will find themselves among the top four by Sunday should they sweep the Oregon schools during their trip to the Willamette Valley this week.

But as has been pointed out several times in this space, it's best not to have any expectations -- outside of a good effort -- with this year's Cougars. Just enjoy what you're seeing during Ernie Kent's first season in Pullman. It will take a couple years for Kent to put together a roster that can performance exactly as Kent wants and envisions from a basketball team.

Expectations with this group are impossible. Who saw the three-game winning streak? Then after consecutive wins over Cal, Washington and Oregon, who would have guessed the Cougars losing by double figures at home to Oregon State? Or last weekend...if you're going to pick the home game that WSU wins, wouldn't it have been to struggling Cal, not Stanford?

So, sure, we can sit here and map out what it's going to take for Washington State to finish third in league, fifth in league, eighth in league. It's a wasted exercise. Every game is an adventure. Outside of Arizona on Feb. 15, there isn't a team remaining on the schedule the Cougars can't win. But there also isn't a remaining game they can't lose.

There is still very little respect for the Cougars. Among teams in the Power 5 conferences, Washington State is lowest ranked team in the KenPom ratings at No. 194.

Pretty sure the Cougars won't win the Pac-12. Also fairly certain they won't finish last. But everything in between is fair game. As long as Washington State continues to play hard and smart, it's a winning season.

The week ahead: The Cougars (11-10, 4-5) open a two-game road trip at 7 p.m. Thursday at Oregon State (14-7, 5-4), followed by a 4 p.m. Sunday game at Oregon (15-7, 5-4). Both games are televised on the Pac-12 Network.

This week is about avenging previous performances, on both sides of the coin. Thursday, the Cougars look to atone for their worst Pac-12 outing, when on Jan. 17 Washington State never got it going in a 62-47 loss to Oregon State. On the flip side, Oregon looks to get back at WSU for its Jan. 15 game in Pullman, where the Cougars outplayed the Ducks at their own game in a 108-99 overtime loss.

After rolling up 108 points in its previous game, Washington State's 47-point output against Oregon State in their Pullman game remains a stunner. True, the Beavers try to bring you down to their level by controlling tempo and frustrating offenses with a sticky zone defense. OSU completely succeeded in allowing the Cougars just 48 shots and a shooting percentage of .292.

It's possible the Cougars were flat worn out from the emotional win over Oregon less than 48 hours previous to the OSU tip off. That won't the case here, as Washington State will be fresh for the Beavers. Surely the Cougars will be looking to get more out of a couple players, like Que Johnson (2 points, 1 assist vs. OSU), Ike Iroegbu (2 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists) and Jordan Railey (0 rebounds). Even Josh Hawkinson, who had 11 points and nine boards in the first meeting against the Beavers, figures to contribute more.

The Cougars catch Oregon State coming off its worst stretch of the season, as the Beavers lost two games by wide margins to the Arizona schools last week. Washington State hopes to get its running game going, and perhaps get the Beavers in some foul trouble, as this OSU team doesn't go beyond seven or eight players.

Oregon State's key figure is junior guard Gary Payton II, who had 13 points, 13 rebounds and three steals against WSU. Though he's a guard, Payton is fourth in Pac-12 rebounding at 8.0 per game. Guard Langston Morris-Walker hurt the Cougars last time with a 22-point, 11-rebound performance. Oddly enough, Washington State's guards will have their hands full keeping OSU off the glass.

Three days later, Washington State drives down the valley to Eugene for a rematch against Oregon. The Ducks have bounced back since their fruitless trip to Washington, winning three of their past four games, including a 68-67 overtime win at Arizona State.

This game marks Kent's first appearance at Oregon since he was fired by his alma mater in 2010 following a 13-year run as Ducks' coach. In all likelihood, Kent -- Oregon's winningest coach in program history -- should get a warm welcome, but Duck fans, and particularly the students, can be unpredictable.

Oregon's main interest is outscoring the opposition. The Ducks lead the Pac-12 in scoring at 76.4 points a game, but rank 11th in points allowed at 71.1. They're third in the Pac-12 in shooting percentage at .455.

Washington State was at its sharpest in the overtime win over Oregon, shooting .589 from the field, as well as hitting 14 of 24 from 3-point range. Three Cougars scored at least 20 points, led by the 26-point, 13-rebound performance of Hawkinson.

Joseph Young, the Pac-12's second-leading scorer at 18.7 points a game, torched the Cougars for 32 points in the Pullman game. Elgin Cook was Oregon's main inside influence, with 26 points and 10 boards. Another scorer to watch is Dillon Brooks, who is among the Pac-12's top 20 at 12.6 points per game. Forward Jordan Bell is the Pac-12's top active shot blocker (with UW's Upshaw gone) at 3.2 blocks per game.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • Oregon State leads the Pac-12 in field goal defense (.368) and 3-point field goal defense (.285).

  • Three of the Pac-12's top four free throw teams are on display in Oregon this week in No. 1 Oregon (.747), No. 3 WSU (.724) and No. 4 OSU (.721).

  • Don't foul Oregon's Young. He is the Pac-12's runaway free throw percentage leader at .931 (67 of 72). Seven of the Pac-12's top 15 free throw shooters play for Washington State, Oregon or Oregon State.

  • The Oregon State-Washington State series is the country's eighth-longest continuous rivalry at 106 consecutive seasons. The longest is 115 season (Columbia-Yale and Princeton-Yale).

  • The last time WSU won in Eugene was 2009, when Kent was coaching the Ducks.

    Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel


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