After the Washington State Cougars lost their opening two Pac-10 games to UCLA and USC back in December, I called their next two against the Oregon schools must wins.
And now I'm doing it again.
On Thursday, the Cougars dominated from start to finish in a comfortable 78-61 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils. It was their fourth win in their last five games, and they were preparing for a battle with the ranked Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night.
Against Arizona State, Cougar forward DeAngelo Casto went off for a career high 25 points, taking advantage of Arizona State's lack of physicality early and often.
Right behind Casto was Klay Thompson with 22 points, to go along with eight rebounds and nine assists. It was the fifth time in the past six games that Thompson has recorded eight or more rebounds. A big part for the Cougar recent momentum.
Everything seemed lined up for a victory against the Wildcats coming into last night.
Thompson was leading the charge. Reggie Moore had returned from his suspension to pick up where he had left off, scoring 11 points with five assists. And reserve guard Faisal Aden was back after missing a game with a sore knee.
The Wildcats were coming off a loss at Washington in a game that was closer, for the most part, than the score would indicate.
Will The Cougars Make The NCAA Tournament?
However, in Pullman on Saturday night, the lasting image for me will be watching Klay Thompson standing at the free-throw line after the final buzzer sounded, with his hands on his heads, wondering how he had missed that shot and letting Arizona win 65-63.
The Cougars started the game comfortably building a 22-10 lead, despite Thompson collecting two fouls in the first five minutes of the game. Head coach Ken Bone decided to leave him in.
Smart move or not, I'm not sure. Thompson only picked up one more foul the remainder of the game in which he played 38 of the 40 minutes.
But his offense struggled. His shots were not falling in. Thompson scored a season-low nine points on 4-16 shooting, including one of seven from beyond the three-point line.
Faisal Aden also struggled to find his shot, scoring just five points on two of seven shooting, including one of six from three. Aden, who early on complemented Thompson in the scoring department and is known for his accuracy from beyond the three-point line, is just 3-19 in his past four games from downtown, just 16 percent.
Arizona was led by sophomore Derrick Williams, who scored 17 points to go along with a season-high 19 rebounds. His physical presence inside and ability to get to the free-throw line wore out the Cougars, and the Wildcats were able to walk out of Beasley Coliseum with a win.
But as big of a win this may have been for Arizona, it was an even bigger loss for Washington State and their hopes at returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Now the Cougars must regroup and face their next opponent, crosstown rival Washington, next Sunday, Jan. 30, in Pullman.
Other than a small hiccup in Palo Alto, against Stanford, the Washington Huskies have been winning, winning comfortably, and will be in the top 20, if not the top 15 when the new rankings come out on Monday.
With the Cougars loss, they drop to 4-4 in the conference and 14-6 overall with 10 regular season games remaining.
It's my belief that a benchmark the tournament selection committee looks at is that 20-win season that teams usually have when they are invited to play in the Big Dance.
If the Cougars want to reach 20 wins before the Pac-10 tournament, they must win six of their final 10 games. Looking at the schedule, it's hard find those six wins.
The Cougars lost their mulligan with the Huskies when they were defeated by California 10 days ago in overtime.
Now they must beat the Huskies to maintain that sliver of a chance that would have them dancing.
The Pac-10 is hard to figure out. After watching the Cougars handle the Oregon Ducks a few weeks ago, I silently predicted that the Ducks would not win a game in conference all season. And then they beat USC, a team that had no problem overpowering the Cougars in Los Angeles.
So what does that mean?
When a conference has a clear-cut top dog, and then the rest of the conference beats itself up against each other, it makes the conference overall look weak, giving national media a reason to think the conference is down.
Had the Cougars beaten Arizona, they would've been 5-3 in the conference and not atop a middle portion of a conference that can't get out of each other's way.
Another thing the selection committee looks at is out-of-conference quality wins.
Before the season started, the Cougars looked at their schedule and saw Gonzaga, Kansas State and then possible matchups in Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic, where they ended up playing Baylor and Butler.
Gonzaga this year is not the Gonzaga of old, and at this point, if they make the NCAA tournament, it will be because of a championship in the West Coast Conference Tournament, after back to back losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco before getting ready to take on No. 21 Saint Mary's tomorrow night.
Kansas State has deeply disappointed Wildcat fans lately, having lost four of their past five, and have just one conference win. Even though the Cougars lost to the Wildcats back on Dec. 3, as a Cougar fan, you would still want Kansas State to roll on proving that they were a great team instead of what has happened.
Baylor has also hit a bump in the road, losing two in a row before beating Oklahoma State last night.
And then there's Butler. Last year's runner-up to the national championship.
Butler handled the Cougars with ease back in Hawaii in the final of the Diamond Head Classic. And now the Bulldogs are 14-7 overall, more losses than the Cougars, and today Butler lost to Milwaukee for the second time this season, a team that's below .500.
The Cougars' fate is in their own hands. They must beat Washington on Sunday in Pullman. If they don't, they must win six of their final nine games as they go through Round 2 of the Pac-10 conference; it's hard to look at the schedule and find six wins.
Not even at Oregon.
Do I think they're better than Oregon? Yes. But that doesn't mean it's a victory. I think the Cougars are better than California, and somehow they lost to them.
I don't want to put all the pressure on Klay Thompson, but he is what makes this team goes. Exhibit A was last night. You would like to say Aden is the secondary option when a score is needed, but whether it's because of an ailing knee or whatever the reason, he's just not locked in right now.
The Huskies are playing their best right now, and the injury to Abdul Gaddy might have been a blessing in disguise as it's created an even bigger monster in Isaiah Thomas. Since he's been given the reigns to the offense back on Jan. 6, he's averaging over nine assists a game.
If the Cougars are going to win this game on Sunday, they need to be clicking on all cylinders offensively and defensively.
If they're not, start looking ahead to the Pac-10 tournament or even further down the line, the NIT.