Cougs aim for complete reversal of fortune

PULLMAN -- What a difference a month makes. In January, Oregon was the top 10 team coming into hostile territory. This Thursday, Washington State is the top 10 juggernaut headed into inhospitable country. The Ducks narrowly won that first battle with the Cougs, but haven't been the same since. Ninth-ranked WSU, meanwhile, has won five straight, is 22-4 overall, and just one game behind UCLA.

When Oregon defeated the Cougars in overtime on Jan. 27, it appeared the Ducks were on the fast track to big things. Since then, they've dropped five of their last six, beating only last place Arizona State.

Role reversal or not, WSU head coach Tony Bennett expects a donnybrook in Eugene. And well he should. The Ducks are 14-2 at home, 20-7 overall and ranked No. 23 in the nation.

"They are so good and at home they are so athletic," Bennett said. "Obviously they've lost a few games here but I expect them to be at a high level in that environment. They need this game and so do we ... The line between winning and losing in this league is really fine. They've had some tough breaks and have found themselves losing five of six."

Bennett blames the Ducks' skid on the power of the Pac-10, not any shortcomings by the Ducks. All five Oregon starters are averaging in double figures, led by guard Aaron Brooks who is pacing the conference with 17.6 points a game. The Ducks are averaging 76 points per outing -- third-highest in the conference. And Maarty Leunen, who keyed Oregon's comeback against the Cougs in regulation last month, ranks third in the Pac-10 with 8.9 rebounds per game.

Tipoff Thursday is at 8 pm. The game will be televised on Fox SportsNet.

In the last meeting between the teams, the Cougars were up 61-56 with three minutes remaining when they started to fade. With seconds remaining in regulation and down by two, Leunen grabbed a loose ball and attempted a put back. WSU center Aron Baynes was called for a foul and the game went into overtime when Leunen sank both free throws. Replays showed Baynes was straight up and down defending the shot. However, WSU guard Kyle Weaver may have got a hand on Leunen. Regardless, the Cougars would be in a first place tie with UCLA had they escaped with a victory.

"It was such a controversial ending and I felt like we could have had that one," Bennett said. "But they came up with some big rebounds and we didn't block out ... If we could have made one more play it was ours. I would have been glad to have that game, especially now."

AFTER THE DUCKS, the Cougars travel to Oregon State for an 5 p.m. game Saturday in Corvallis. That game will be televised live on FSN Northwest except within a 75-mile radius of Seattle. In Seattle, it will be broadcast live on FOX College Sports. A tape delay broadcast will air at 10 p.m. in all areas on FSN Northwest.

OSU swept its season series with Arizona State but has yet to defeat another conference team. They are 10-18 overall and 2-13 in the Pac-10. The Beavs played a half of stout basketball against the Cougars last month in Pullman but ultimately fell 70-55 in a game that played closer than the score indicates.

"Oregon State is much better than their record with their size and physicalness," Bennett said. "We know this is a significant weekend and we'll have to be at our best to compete."

Throughout the year, Bennett has tiptoed past postseason talk. But this week he acknowledged the Cougars are in the thick of the Pac-10 race sitting one game back of UCLA with four games remaining.

"We have four games left and we have a chance at it," Bennett said of a first-ever Pac-10 championship for WSU. "It's at that point where you are in the race. We're in second place right now and hopefully we can fight for that."

But along with his optimism, Bennett stuck with his season-long demeanor of focusing on playing good basketball first. He said the team must put on proverbial blinders to escape all the postseason talk.

"That's a mistake if we say we have to win this game or that," Bennett said. "We've talked about that all year, focusing on the quality of our play and knowing that it's out there but not obsess on it."

A WEAVER BELIEVER: Cougar junior Kyle Weaver is on a rampage to wake the echoes of Cougar stars of the past. Last week he became the first Cougar since Keith Morrison (1984-86) to have at least 125 assists and 125 rebounds in the same season, and his four steals against Washington last week moved him past sharpshooting Spokane native Terry Kelly (1977-80) into 10th place on the Cougars' career steals list. Weaver is an all-around stat machine this season. He is tied for the first in the Pac-10 in steals; is third in assists; fifth in rebounding; sixth in blocked shots; and 17th in scoring.

TV OUTLOOK: The Cougars' final two regular season games, both in Pullman, will be televised live. The March 1 game with UCLA is set for 7:30 pm on Fox SportsNet. And two days later, on March 3, the WSU-USC game will be carried on FSN (tipoff at 4 pm).

NOTABLE NOTES:

* The Cougars are ranked second nationally in fewest turnovers (10.2 per game) and are 12th in scoring defense, yielding just 57.7 points per game.The Cougars lead the Pac-10 in scoring defense, turnover margin (plus 4.46 per game) and assist to turnover ratio (1.41).

* Washington State is one of 20 teams in the nation which has not lost consecutive games this season. Others on the list include Florida, Ohio State, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas and USC.

* With 129 blocks the season, the Cougs are one swipe away from tying the school record and on pace for 154. Ivory Clark leads the team with 43 blocks.

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