Critical Pac-10 seeding on line for WSU

THERE'S MORE THAN state bragging rights, or even NCAA or NIT invitation chances, on the line Saturday in Seattle for Tony Bennett's resurgent Washington State basketball team. The Cougs are in a log jam in the middle of the conference standings and need a win to give them a shot at a No. 5 or 6 seed in the Pac-10 tourney. Those two slots are coveted because they guarantee a first-day tourney bye.

And that's important because simple history in the Conference of Parity tells you the odds of winning four straight games in four days -- the recipe required for a 7-to-10 seed to capture the tourney crown -- is a heckuva lot tougher than winning three in three days.

The Cougars, at 8-9 in Pac-10 games, are currently sitting alone at No. 6. That's a little misleading, though, because they have just one regular-season game left while the teams just above and below them have two left.

In short, there's a big jumble in the middle with more scenarios possible than in an episode of Lost.

What we do know is this: If the Cougs beat Washington at HecEd on Saturday, they'll finish conference play at 9-9. In the worse case scenario, that would tie them for the No. 6 seed with USC or Oregon State.

In the best case, the Cougars beat the Dawgs and 8-8 Arizona loses one (or even two) games this week and suddenly the No. 5 seed becomes a possibility for WSU.

Seeding ties are broken first by how the teams in question fared head-to-head during the season. In that situation, the Cougars are OK if tied with Arizona or Oregon State, because WSU split with each of those schools. USC, however, swept the Cougs this season, so the crimson faithful ought to grab their worry beads and start hoping the Beavs on Thursday -- or the Ducks on Saturday -- can go into Troy and take down the Trojans, who are currently 7-9 in Pac-10 games. OSU is also 7-9.

If two tied teams split their head-to-head games during the season, the next tiebreaker is how each fared against the conference champion. If still tied, then it's how they each did against the No. 2 team in the conference, and so on.

If the Cougars lose to the Huskies, the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds are still a possibility depending on how Arizona, USC and Oregon State come out of the collective six games they will be playing this week.

Oregon State, which is coming off a loss Sunday to Oregon, would appear to have the toughest challenge. The Beavers are on the road to USC and UCLA. Arizona stays home to face Cal and Stanford, while USC hosts the Beavs and Ducks.

* The Pac-10 tourney, which is single-elimination, starts with two games -- 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 -- on March 11. The next day, four games are played: 4 vs. 5, 3 vs. 6, 1 vs. winner of 8 vs. 9, and 2 vs. winner of 7 vs. 10. The four winners then play on March 13 and then the championship game is on March 14. All games will be played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

* If the conference season ended as the standings look today, the Cougars would take on Cal. That would hold even if the Bears lose to ASU this weekend, because Cal beats ASU in the tiebreaker formula.

* basketball analyst Andy Katz, who has always been a big fan of Tony Bennett's, proclaimed on Sunday that "Washington State is a serious threat to win the Pac-10 tournament." There is even more national love coming the Cougs' way -- they received some votes this week in the AP poll.

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