HARMELING: Now is the time for these Cougars

WHAT IS THE only thing that sounds better than a 10-2 start for the Cougs? I'll tell you: 12-2. And while on paper these next two games might seem like gimmies to some -- they certainly won't be, although I won't be the least bit surprised to see the Cougs sweep as forecast. These next two games could have the whole Cougar Nation thinking big this season. And by big, I mean the Big Dance.

"Starting off strong in conference play" is about as cliché as it gets, but it holds especially true for the Cougs this season. Here are my three reasons why...

1) Teams that underachieve in the non-conference slate inevitably improve quite a bit by the time mid-conference rolls around. 2) With school out, Beasley is likely to be mostly empty, and 3) It is imperative that this young team keeps their confidence.

It is no secret that Oregon (7-4) and Oregon State (6-5) have struggled so far, especially considering that neither squad has played a ranked team. Compare that to the freshman/sophomore laden group from Pullman sporting a 10-2 record with both loses coming on the road against teams currently in the Top 25. Note – Before KSU was ranked, many WSU players described K-State to me as very good, very legit team.

I ALSO REMEMBER TWO years ago when Stanford, who would go on to become a Sweet 16 team that year, lost to Siena by double digits in non-conference play. That's right. Siena.

Non-conference play can give an indication of a conference's overall strength, but it always seems like teams somehow manage to lose against teams they shouldn't. Granted, upsets happen, but it is also obvious that well-coached teams greatly improve during conference play compared to where they started two months earlier.

For that reason, I believe it is important to jump these two Oregon teams while they are "down". Because both figure to be much improved later on, especially Oregon State. Nobody wants to be checking the schedule around tourney time lamenting; ‘Oh, if we only would have beat Oregon at home when we should have…"

ANOTHER REASON THESE two games are huge -- the students are away on break. The first thing I used to check when the schedule was released was whether those first two Pac-10 games were at home or on the road. At WSU, more so than any other Pac-10 school, it is a disadvantage to have those opening conference games at home. That said, UO and OSU might be the best Pac-10 teams to host at this time.

The teams I was part of at Washington State always had a motto: Sweep at home, split on the road. This would be a huge weekend for a sweep.

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST reason why two wins are vital this weekend is to keep the youngsters' confidence rolling. Don't get me wrong -- too much confidence can be a bad thing but I think Ken Bone and the leaders on the team are keeping that in check. But if a young team loses that confidence, it can be a long process getting it back.

It took us until our third year in the program before we believed we were going to win every time we stepped on the court. Winning is a habit, as Vince Lombardi used to say. It doesn't happen overnight, but these guys are certainly on the right track. It starts by beating the teams you "should" beat, and WSU has done that with Eastern, UAA, Idaho, etc.

It's followed by getting a gut-check win against a quality opponent – see LSU. Next up? Building on that success against conference foes that know you almost as well as you know yourself.

Trust me -- a sweep this weekend will have the Cougs believing they really belong. And as long as they channel that belief in the right way, it will pay dividends through the roller-coaster Pac-10 conference season.

I said previously that the K-State loss would be good for them in the long run – and I'm still holding true to that. But hear me loud and clear about this week's home opening games: These two against Oregon and Oregon State will be as important as any over the next two months.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daven Harmeling was a mainstay on the Washington State basketball team – and a fixture on the Pac-10 All-Academic team – during the most successful three-year stretch in Cougar history. Part of Dick Bennett's stellar recruiting class of 2004, this Grand Junction, Colo., product completed his eligibility last season and now is in Vancouver, Wash., running clinics for Dan Dickau Basketball, coaching high school ball, and working as a substitute teacher. He is writing a regular column for Cougfan.com this season.

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