Hoops round up: Cougs in survival mode

<b>PULLMAN—After losing six of their last eight games, the Washington State men's basketball team's attitude has gone from optimistic to survivalist. Whereas the Cougars once talked about NIT and NCAA tournament aspirations, now they are just trying to hang onto the coveted eighth spot in the Pac-10 conference tournament. WSU holds the final postseason bid, but Oregon and USC are not out of the race just yet.

Over the weekend, the Cougars (10-12 overall, 5-8 in the Pac-10) dropped both games of their Oregon road trip: 58-51 to Oregon State on Thursday, and 69-66 to Oregon on Saturday. This Saturday the Cougars host Washington.

"This is do-or-die," said senior guard Thomas Kelati, who leads WSU with 13.5 points per game. "We're looking at this game as a must-win."

After being ruled academically ineligible in January, senior forward Isaiah Simmons thought his college career was over. But after winning an appeal last week, Simmons returned to the team for the weekend set in Oregon. Against the Beavers and Ducks he played just three minutes each.

Having missed seven games, Simmons is clearly not in prime shape. He's been bringing up the rear during sprints in practice. And for a player like Simmons, whose energy and hustle are two of the three reasons he gets playing time (the other being his good decision-making), that doesn't bode well.

WSU head coach Dick Bennett said Simmons "isn't anywhere near well-conditioned enough" to play any more than he did over the weekend, citing that the Tacoma native was tired after only a couple trips down the court.

Bennett said he is going to cut the rotation down to eight players soon, and if he had to do it today, Simmons wouldn't be in that group.

Simmons admits that he's not in shape, but says he didn't lose anything mentally during his absence.

"I was running when I was gone, but it's a different type of running than being on the court," he said after Monday's practice. "But I watched every game, and our system is still the same, so I maintained that sharpness."

Simons added that he was nervous before the Oregon State game, but glad to be back on the team.

"It was a great feeling to hear the roar of the crowd again," he said.

On Jan. 23, the Cougars hung around for a half before getting blown out by the rival Washington Huskies, currently ranked No. 13 in the country. On Saturday, the Cougars host the rematch at Friel Court. While the Huskies' loss to Oregon State on Sunday might affect the betting line somewhat, UW will still be heavy favorites, and a win by WSU would be an upset along the lines of the Cougars' monumental win over Arizona earlier this year.

"We need to be a lot more poised (than the last UW game) and do a lot better on the defensive boards," Bennett said. "We also need to make some shots."

In the season's first match-up, WSU shot just 32 percent from the field and were out rebounded 46-38. They surrendered 18 offensive boards to the Huskies.

"We didn't take care of the ball," Kelati added, citing WSU's 16 turnovers in that game.

Kelati and Bennett both said that playing in Pullman should make a difference as far as WSU's poise and confidence, as will having seen UW's vaunted speed and pressure once already.

"Their quickness won't be a surprise to us," Kelati said. "We've seen it once, so it's not new."

Bennett has juggled his lineups all season, shaking it up again versus Oregon when he started freshmen forwards Kyle Weaver and Daven Harmeling in favor of freshman center Robbie Cowgill and senior forward Chris Schlatter. For the UW game Bennett said on Monday that he doesn't know who will start. By the looks of things in practice, only Kelati, senior forward Jeff Varem and freshman point Derrick Low appear safe.

Freshman center Robbie Cowgill had fouled out of three straight games before Saturday's loss to Oregon, when he didn't start and played only 10 minutes.

After a Feb. 5 win against USC, in which Cowgill's foul trouble interrupted what was looking like his best game of the year (11 points on 5-for-5 shooting), he said the fouls are a result of his eagerness to block shots.

"I put the refs in a tough position where they either have to call the foul or not," he said.

The 6-foot-10 Cowgill leads WSU with 19 blocks this year, but are the minutes he has to spend on the bench in foul trouble worth the 0.9 blocks per game he's putting up?

Last season, public perception was that the Pac-10 was comprised of Stanford, Washington, Arizona...and seven other teams. By only putting the aforementioned three teams in the NCAA tournament (plus Oregon in the NIT), the Pac-10 was labeled as one of the weakest major conferences in the country. Stanford's near-undefeated regular season was even devalued to many people because the Pac-10 looked so bad. And when the Big Three were ousted before the Sweet 16, that didn't help matters.

After Stanford lost some key players in the off-season, including NBA lottery pick Josh Childress, the Pac-10 appeared to have been weakened even more going into 2004-05, with only Washington and Arizona striking fear into anyone.

But while that perception still rings true in the polls -- 'Zona and UW are the only ranked teams, with Oregon State just cracking this week's "teams receiving votes" group -- Bennett said the conference has gotten better.

"A lot of teams are better than their record shows," he said, "we just knock each other off."

To wit: The worst team in the conference, USC, swept Arizona State. ASU swept Stanford, who beat Arizona, who beat UW. The Huskies lost to Oregon State, who was blown out by the Cougars once. The Cougars beat Arizona, but have been blown out by UW and lost to Arizona State. UCLA split with UW, swept the Cougars, but also lost to Cal. And Cal beat Oregon State. See where this is going?

"The conference is a lot better this year than last year, I just don't know if we're going to get a whole lot of teams into the (NCAA) tournament," Bennett said.

When the conference tournament rolls around, the coach thinks it will be more than just a two-team race.

"It's going to be much more open-ended than people realize. If we can beat Arizona on the road, anyone can win -- if they get into the tournament, that is."

While the WSU women's basketball team is struggling again this season (6-18 overall, 2-13 in conference), at least there haven't been too many people around to notice.

The Cougar women are last-place in the Pac-10 in home attendance, bringing in an average of 771 fans in nine conference games. If you take out the game against rival Washington on Jan. 22, which the Cougars lost in front of 1,460 fans, WSU has brought in just 684 people per contest. In last Saturday's home finale against Oregon State, the team drew 752 fans.

Oregon (4,110), Stanford (3,944) and Washington (3,512) lead the Pac-10 in home attendance.

In case you're wondering, the Cougar men are barely beating out USC for last-place in Pac-10 home attendance. WSU brings in 4,044 per game, while the Trojans play in front of an average of 4,009 fans. WSU is about 1,000 fans per game behind eighth-place Stanford.

Arizona (14,577), UCLA (10,140) and Washington (10,000) lead the conference in men's home attendance.

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