Cougs still feeling like an underdog

PULLMAN -– Washington State is nationally ranked for the first time in 24 years, at No. 22 and 23 in the two major polls, but the number on the mind of head coach Tony Bennett on Monday was 14. That's how many games are left in the regular season.

"What I've told the guys it means is we're off to a decent start with some quality wins -- if we're ranked at the end of the year, then we're talking," Bennett said.

"They've done things the right way and they've worked hard," Bennett said of his team. "It's a reflection of what they've done. We've taken care of business up to this point and I'm glad about that."

But time won't stop to applaud the new kids on the block. Bennett pointed out his team still has 14 Pac-10 battles remaining this season, including road tests this week against Cal and Stanford.

The Cougars are 14-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-10 – tied for No. 1 in the conference with UCLA, USC and Arizona.

Three of the Cougars' last four games have been against their fellow leaders. WSU is in the top 25 now due largely to stellar work against those three teams.

The Cougs came within a whisker of knocking off then No. 1-rated UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, beat USC in the final seconds, and then capped things off at home Saturday with a dramatic overtime victory over now-No. 8-ranked Arizona.

The Cougars found a way Saturday to slow the Pac-10's most explosive offense and closed out a strong opponent in the waning moments ¬– even if it took two attempts.

"We've been getting some good wins," said junior Kyle Weaver, who nearly pulled off a triple double against the Wildcats. "To be ranked like that, it's kind of special."

But as Bennett warned, the season has only just begun. And the Cougars are still clinging to their underdog mentality –- something that has served them well all season.

"We still feel like the underdog," said forward Daven Harmeling, who hit seven three-pointers against Arizona. "From the beginning it felt like us against them. That's a mentality we have to have to be successful."

Despite Harmeling's 6-foot-7 stature and his career high 28-point effort against the Wildcats, he has not donned a "Big Man on Campus" swagger.

Harmeling said other than a few "good game" comments, he has not attracted much attention around Pullman.

"I'm pretty unassuming so maybe people haven't noticed me," Harmeling said. "It's not going to my head, that's for sure."

Harmeling, who starred in WSU's big over Gonzaga last month, was ice-cold in the narrow loss to UCLA and says his aim is to be more consistent. "There was a fall off last time after I experienced some success (Gonzaga)," Harmeling said. "I want to guard against that and not let it happen again."

WSU CENTER ARON Baynes practiced without any visible limitation on Monday. Baynes, who has tended to favor his left ankle since undergoing surgery on it, twisted his right ankle in practice last Wednesday and sat out – though he did suit up – on Saturday against Arizona.

After practice Monday, Bennett said he sees Baynes playing in the Bay Area games this week. "We've given him some more time (off since Wednesday) and hopefully he will respond." Bennett said. "We're going to need him the rest of the year.

"When you add a 6-10, 280-pound body in there who is pretty aggressive, it helps us," Bennett said of the sophomore from Australia. "His ability to occupy bodies, so guys like Robbie (Cowgill) and Daven (Harmeling) could come back and rebound was important. No question we are going to need him."

AFTER STORMING OUT to a 17-7 first-half lead, the Cougars received a wake-up call from Arizona. The ‘Cats switched from man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone and the Cougars managed to score just five points over the final 12 minutes of the half. "Every experience you have like that you learn," said Bennett. "Hopefully we'll be patient but we'll be able to get in more gaps and not be on our heals circling the perimeter."

JUST HOW FAR HAS the WSU basketball program come after a decade of losing? So far that the Cougars warranted the lead headline and color photo on's basketball page on Sunday. "Lolla Palouse-a" screamed the headline, complemented by a large photo of Cougar fans swarming around Weaver.

Another measure of how far the Cougs have come is the fact that leading scorer Derrick Low was nearly silent against Arizona. He made just one of 12 shots from the field and ended up with four points.

GIVEN ALL THE PRE-SEASON hype around the Washington Huskies, casual fans of the sports page no doubt will be taking a double-take in the morning papers when they look at the national rankings. The Dawgs have fallen out of the AP poll and are No. 24, one spot behind the Cougs, in the ESPN/Coaches poll.

"Cougar fans can call their friends and talk some trash," Harmeling said. "But we're not going to do that. We realize how talented UW is. But it's definitely fun for the fans and people who are interested in us."

The Cougars and Huskies meet in Pullman on Jan. 20 and in Seattle on Feb. 14.


The WSU-Stanford game on Saturday is set to be televised live by Fox Sports in the Northwest and in the Bay Area. Tip off is at 4pm. Stanford is 9-4 this season and coming off a last-second victory at Virginia that snapped the Cavs' nine-game winning streak.

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