Cougs ranked No. 20 but defense climbing

AFTER A SPLIT at home against UCLA and Southern Cal, Washington State dropped in the Coaches' poll for the third straight week, settling in at No. 20. A similar decline is expected in the AP poll when it is released later today. But here's why the Cougs might be poised to reverse that trend a week from now.

Defense.

There was a possession in the second half of Washington State's 74-50 drubbing of USC where the Trojans ran their offense just as intended, the shooter coming off a screen and wide open to launch the three. But he hesitated, passed off the ball and Washington State eventually forced a turnover.

It was what had happened leading up to that point that explained why.

When Washington State plays their brand of defense, a cumulative effect is produced. USC's frustration was plain to see even in the first half, and the Trojans were so used to a Cougar being in their hip pocket that they expected it -- even on that second half play where it didn't materialize.

Wazzu has actually played solid defense the last three games -- they lost to both Stanford and UCLA, true, but both games featured some scintillating stretches of Cougar D. Against Stanford, the Cougs forced 17 turnovers. Washington State had 11 steals against the Bruins. The catalyst was the loss to Cal.

Washington State had been living dangerously up to that point, too many teams getting too many open looks and the Bears made the Cougars pay. After the Cal loss, Wazzu's perimeter defenders would no longer cede the area beyond the arc -- Cougars immediately went to the ball and hands went up, previously unfettered passes were now defended.

The effect takes teams out of their offensive rhythm.

Both UCLA and Stanford are solid, resilient teams and they were able to reclaim their offensive flow, although in the UCLA game Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes being whistled for a combined nine fouls at the 5:18 mark of the second half while Kevin Love had but one foul also had something to do with it.

USC, on the other hand, fielded a starting five of all freshmen and sophomores and never recovered.

This week, the Cougs go on the road to take on the Oregon schools. Oregon State has been competitive in one half and blown out in the other in most games this year. Nothing can be taken for granted in the Pac-10 and certainly not on the road, but it won't be a surprise to see Washington State win handily. Oregon, however, is another matter.

The Ducks, the league's most schizophrenic team, is 6-2 at home this year. They have shown themselves capable of beating Stanford by five, as they did on Jan. 13, but then getting waxed by that same Cardinal team by 29 three weeks later.

They responded by going on the road and blowing out Cal by 22 points. The same Cal team who beat Washington State in Pullman.

One thing you can bet Washington State will be working on in practice this week is breaking the press. USC towards the tail end of the game put on a full court press and WSU did not handle it well, with a turnover and two near others.

The Ducks' postseason aspirations at 14-9 (5-6) make the Wazzu game a near must-win for Oregon. If Washington State plays their defense in Eugene, however, next week's polls should see the Cougars' climbing the ladder again.


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