'Underdog' Cougs: Bring on da Dawgs!

PULLMAN -- No matter how many victories they rack up or how high they may be ranked, Tony Bennett's Washington State Cougars will not relinquish their underdog mentality. It's clamped in a crimson vise. And a national top 10 ranking for the first time in school history won't change the self image as they prep for Wednesday's 7 p.m. regionally televised battle with Washington in Seattle.

The story lines on this one are numerous. The 21-4 Cougars have defeated the Huskies three straight times, the victory last month being the most lopsided for the Cougars -- 75-47 -- in series history. The 16-8 Huskies, losers of five of their first six conference games, have now won five of the last six and are gunning for a fourth straight invite to the Big Dance. Adding intrigue to it all are the comments Sunday from Husky center Spencer Hawes: "We hate the Cougars ..."

The Cougs, coming off a sweep of the Bay Area schools, vaulted to their best-ever ranking Monday, jumping four spots in the Associated Press poll to No. 10. They're No. 11 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. ESPN believes the Cougars are a lock for the NCAA tournament and has them slotted for a three-seed in its Feb. 11 Bracketology breakdown.

In perhaps the ultimate validation, the greatest coach the world has ever known, John Wooden, recently said WSU was the best-coached team in the Pac-10.

"When people hear Washington State they don't register that with being in the Top 10 or the Top 25, and neither do we," WSU guard Taylor Rochestie said Monday, in deference to the underdog role. WSU, predicted by many to finish dead last in the Pac-10 this season, sits just a half-game back of UCLA for the top spot in the conference.

Rochestie said the team has been driven to prove the critics wrong.

"We know what we've done to get here and what it takes. At the same time, it takes that underdog mentality to get to where we've been."

The Huskies aren't looking at the Cougs as underdogs after getting swept by WSU a year ago and then whitewashed last month. One big difference between that last rivalry game and this one will be the presene of Hawes, the Huskies' leading scorer who sat out the last meeting with a sprained ankle. The Huskies noticeably suffered without the 7-footer's presence near the basket. The Cougars know their rival is a more formidable foe with Hawes in the lineup.

"He is definitely going to change the dynamics with another big presence inside on the boards," WSU forward Ivory Clark said. ‘I think we were able to do a good job on the boards because he wasn't playing."

But more dangerous is how Hawes compliments Jon Brockman, the Pac-10's leading rebounder and new Pac-10 Player of the Week. Hawes will work off the dribble in the paint as well as shoot mid-range jumpers. Brockman will plant near the board to get easy baskets and grab hard fought rebounds.

Without Hawes on the inside, the Cougars often devoted another man to the perimeter where they held the Husky sharp shooters to just 33 percent from beyond the arc.

Now rid of injury, Hawes scored 16 and 18, respectively, in victories last week over California and Stanford. Meanwhile, Brockman has recorded consecutive double doubles.

"We have to understand that those two guys compliment each other very well," Rochestie said. "We're going to do what we do to shut them down and hopefully Hawes won't be a 28-point difference from the last game."

The Cougars must deal with a hostile Bank of America Arena-Hec Ed crowd this go around. Despite struggles in conference play, the Huskies rarely lose at home, posting a 14-1 record this season.

Also, the Cougars must be wary of the Huskies' desire for revenge and an upset over a ranked opponent. The Huskies play five of their final six against ranked opponents and a victory over a Top 10 team could be a resume builder heading into the postseason.

"They are trying to get into the postseason," Rochestie said. "They know that if they could steal a couple they are going to get to the postseason and be a tough team to play come March. This game means the world to them as it does us."

In the past three games, the Cougars have held their opponents under 50 points. However, the team has not scored over 60 points since defeating Arizona 72-66 on Feb. 1. Bennett said the Cougars likely will need a better offensive effort against Washington -- a team second in the conference in scoring offense. He said the team's defense will also be tested.

"I know we're going to have to be good defensively and make some baskets," Bennett said. "I didn't think we were exceptional offensively against Stanford or Cal. We've worked hard at some things ... and we're trying to take a step in the right direction."

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