HOOPS: Cougs climb to No. 4 in polls

ANOTHER HIGH WATER MARK for the Washington State hoops program arrived the day before Christmas. The Cougars, with a perfect 11-0 mark, ascended to No. 4 in all the basketball land in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Top 25 polls. With a win Friday, the Cougs would equal the best start in program history. Conference play looms thereafter, and every Pac-10 team sports a winning record.

The Cougs remained the highest ranked Pac-10 team in the polls, with former No. 1 UCLA on their heels at the No. 5 spot. Both Georgetown and Texas lost this past week to fall out of the Top 5.

The 1991-92 squad at Washington State started the season 12-0, a mark the Cougs can match this Friday against North Carolina A&T. The game against the Aggies will complete Wazzu's non-conference schedule, with a matchup against the Huskies kicking off the Pac-10 slate on Jan. 5 in Seattle.

After Friday's game in Pullman against North Carolina A&T, the Cougs have a difficult task looming -- three games in seven days and all on the road -- at Washington, at No. 24 USC, and the finale against No. 5 UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.

Despite eleven straight wins to start the season, Cougar coach Tony Bennett has said league play will be a different animal. Indeed, as good as the Pac-10 was last season, it appears even better top to bottom this year.

Every Pac-10 team has a winning record with in-conference play looming.

Bennett also said before the season the Cougs could field a better team but with a worse record than last year's 26-8 mark.

Still, the Cougars, when they play their brand of defense and run their offense, are as tough a team as anyone. The Cougs win over then No. 19 Gonzaga in Spokane, and the victory against Baylor in Waco, a 9-1 team who could very well climb into the rankings and postseason play this year, are good examples.

Washington State in the near term will have to overcome the loss of Daven Harmeling, the first man off the bench for the Cougs and averaging 22 minutes a game. The junior forward fractured a thumb in Friday's practice. With Harmeling out indefinitely, the minutes of Caleb Forrest and Nikola Koprivica look to increase.

The Cougs' next four opponents:

  • North Carolina A&T: Their five starters are either seniors or juniors and are led in scoring by Steven Rush's 16.9 ppg --- 112 of his 179 field goal attempts this season have come from behind the three-point line.

  • at Washington: The matchup between Aron Baynes and Jon Brockman should be a treat. The Cougs have beat the Huskies five straight times. Washington last defeated Washington State during the 2004-05 season.

  • at No. 24 USC: WSU and Southern Cal clashed in two thrilling regular season games during the regular season last year. Washington State won both, but the Trojans then bested the Cougs in the Pac-10 tourney.

  • at No. 5 UCLA: The Bruins looked unstoppable early, and their lone loss came at the hands of No. 8 Texas. The early battle for league supremacy could begin in earnest with this game. The Cougs have dropped a number of heartbreakers in recent years to the Bruins. In four of the last six meetings, all Cougar losses, the margin of victory has been 3, 2, 2 and 3 points.

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