Hoops: Cougs look to crash national rankings

TONY BENNETT'S SURPRISING Cougar basketball team is 12-2 and fresh off an impressive swing through Los Angeles, but still struggling for national recognition. While close, at No. 31 in both polls, the Cougs are looking to crack the top 25 for the first time since 1983. They'll get an opportunity to crash the gates when they host Arizona State on Thursday and then No. 7-ranked Arizona on Saturday.

The Cougars have one more win this season than they did all of last and with a victory against ASU can tie their highest season win total since 1996-97.

With that decade of futility as a backdrop, it's perhaps easy to understand why pollsters are slow to give the Cougs a spot in the national rankings.

But based on what the Cougars have shown so far, there is little doubt the team is for real. They're playing great defense -– as you'd expect from any team coached by a Bennett –- but they're also consistently hitting shots on offense.

The Cougars are No. 1 in the Pac-10 in defense, surrendering an average of 58 points per game, and No. 2 in blocked shots (4.68 per). But they're also No. 1 in three-point shooting (40.1 percent), No. 4 (47.4 percent) in overall field goal accuracy, and No. 3 in turnover margin.

Here's another reason why the Cougs are looking good: Rebounding. Yep, rebounding. It's a persistent concern on the Palouse -– and these Cougars aren't to be confused with glass-cleaning Washington or Arizona in that department –- but the fact is the Cougs aren't horrible. While last in the conference in offensive boards, they're not way off the pace. And in defensive rebounding they're in the middle of the Pac.

That may sound uninspiring, but for a program that has lost so many close games over the previous two seasons, incremental improvement in rebounding translates to a handful more possessions per game. And in this league, that's a big-time difference maker.

Speaking of difference makers, how about junior swingman Kyle Weaver? His work in the final moments of the win over USC was nothing short of splendid, but his season-long output is truly impressive. He is is No. 6 in the Pac-10 in steals, with 15; No. 5 in blocked shots, with 16; and No. 8 in assists, with 42. He also has one of the best turnover-to-assists ratios in the league.

ARIZONA STATE COMES to Pullman at 6-7 overall and 0-2 in conference after losing last weekend to Cal in overtime and Stanford. They've played just two road games this season and lost both, at Minnesota and Xavier. Christian Polk is the leading scorer (14.4 per game) and Jeff Pendergraph is No. 3 in the Pac-10 in rebounding at 9.5 per outing. In the series, the Cougs and Devils have split each of the last two seasons with the home team winning all four games. Tip off is at 7 pm.

THE COUGAR-WILDCAT match up on Saturday will be televised live on Fox Sports Northwest and FSN-Arizona. Tip off is at 7 pm. Arizona is ranked No. 7 in both major polls. Wildcats are 11-1 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-10 following wins over Cal and Stanford. They're only setback on the season was in their opener, 93-90, at Virginia. Every Arizona starter is averaging double digits in scoring, with Ivan Radenovic's 17.8 points per game the best in the Pac-10. Mustafa Shakur leads the conference with 7.67 assists per game. In the Cougar series, Arizona has won 23 of 28 road encounters.


• WSU's come-from-behind win at USC on Saturday wasn't unusual. The Cougs are 5-1 when trailing at halftime this season. A year ago, WSU was 3-15 when behind at intermission.

• The Cougars are outscoring their opponents 105-56 in the first four minutes of the second half this season.

• With 62 blocked shots so far this season, the Cougars are on pace for 148, which would shatter the school record of 130, set in 1985-86 and then equaled last season.

• WSU and Arizona are tied for the most geographical diversity on their rosters, each with 11 different places represented. The Cougs feature players from seven states, the District of Columbia, and three foreign countries (Serbia, Australia and New Zealand). The Pac-10 is the most internationally diverse conference in the land with 24 players from 16 foreign countries.

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