Battle of best Ds in Cougs vs. Bruins

PULLMAN -– In the ideal crimson scenario, WSU fans will be cheering for the Huskies. Yep. The cold reality of the Pac-10 basketball standings could make for odd bedfellows Saturday when the Dawgs host UCLA. Of course, it's just a fanciful notion unless the No. 13-ranked Cougs knock off the No. 2 Bruins on Thursday. If that does happen, though, Planet Coug will start hemorrhaging purple with glee.

A Wazzu share of the Pac-10 title can't happen without help from Spencer Hawes & Co.

The Bruins clinched at least a share of the title with a sweep of the Bay Area schools last week, while the Cougars' loss at Eugene means they now control only a portion of their destiny -– sweeping the L.A. schools this week. The rest of their fate rests with the Huskies.

It's an uphill battle, but certainly one WSU guard Derrick Low is prepared to fight.

"We're not going to give up and just say we can't win it (the championship) anymore," Low said. "Anything can happen. UCLA could lose to Washington and us, and if we keep winning we could slide in there."

The Cougars' road to a partial crown is a bit rougher than the Bruins'. Not only must they beat UCLA –- a school they've vanquished just once in the last seven meetings –- but then they turn right around Saturday to host USC, the No. 24-ranked team in the land. The Trojans also happen to be sitting in third place in the Pac-10, one game behind the Cougs, and hungry for second.

If the past is prologue, it should be an exciting couple of days.

The first time the Cougars met the L.A. schools, they lost a heartbreaker to the Bruins and then pulled out a nailbiter, courtesy of some late heroics by Kyle Weaver, against the Trojans. Both contests came down to the final possession and both ended at 58-55.

"It's going to be a tough two games against two of the top teams in the conference," Low said. "We've got to stay focused."

Both games have been sold out for weeks. Before 8 a.m. Monday, students lined the Cougar Depot building hoping to get guest passes for what promises to be an overflowing Beasley Coliseum crowd.

The last sell-ou at Beasley did a vocal number on the Huskies, who left Pullman with heads hung low following a 28-point defeat Jan. 20.

THE BRUINS COME TO Pullman at 25-3 overall and 14-2 in Pac-10 play. The Cougars are 23-5 and 12-4.

The two teams pace the Pac-10 in defense and turnover margin. The Cougs are surrendering a league-best 57.8 points per game and the Bruins 60.6. In turnover margin, WSU is plus-3.96 and UCLA plus-3.29.
Both squads also feature two of the best assist and theft artists in the league in WSU's Weaver and UCLA's Darren Collison.

The teams aren't so close in the scoring category. UCLA averages 74.1 points per game on league-leading field goal accuracy of 49 percent. The Cougs average 66.5 points per game and shoot 47 percent from the field.

UCLA's top scoring threat is Arron Afflalo at 17.5 points per game.

The Cougars' leading scorer is Low (13.9), though his numbers have fallen steadily since he put in a career-high 37 against Oregon on Jan. 27. He has posted no more than 13 points in any game since then. When the Cougars played the Ducks last Thursday he had just six.

It's easy to see the target on Low's back. He said he can no longer roll off a screens with ease. And teams have developed schemes to account for he and Daven Harmeling beyond the arc.

"I've definitely noticed teams keying on me a little bit more," Low said.

But the added attention to Low has freed up teammates such as Aron Baynes and Mac Hopson. WSU forward Robbie Cowgill found room inside the perimeter on multiple occasions last week with the attention granted to Low.

"Oregon State jumped out at me a couple of times and Robbie got three clear shots in a row," Low said. "And Baynes got the ball in the post because they're not around him. People are benefiting from it and as long as we're winning, that's a good thing.

"If (teams) are focusing on me and my teammates are getting open, that's fine," Low said.

TIP OFF THURSDAY is at 7:30 pm Pacific Time. The game will be televised by Fox Sports. Saturday's game against USC starts at 4 pm and will be televised by FSN.

THE PAC-10 TOURNAMENT starts next Wednesday. The Cougs will debut Thursday. If they remain in second place, they'll play the winner of the 7 vs. 10 game. If they drop to third, they'll play the 6 seed. And if they tie UCLA for the conference crown and somehow come away with the 1 seed, they would play the winner of the 8 vs. 9 game.

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