They say it's hard to beat a team three times in one season. But don't tell that to the Washington State Cougars as they face off against in-state rival Washington Huskies Thursday night in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament.
The Cougars have done this before. Back in 2007, they swept the season series against the Huskies before beating them in the Pac-10 tournament. That season, the Cougars achieved their greatest post season success of the modern era when they reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing to North Carolina.
But first things first, they must fight off the Huskies one more time to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
Right now, ESPN Bracketology has the Cougars listed as the next four out. That means a win against Washington won't be enough. In the grand scheme of the things, anything short of a tournament title will not be good enough for the Cougars.
Even the USC Trojans, whom the Cougars beat last Thursday and finished high in the Pac-10, are on the outside looking in.
However, the Cougars will be almost back to full strength come Thursday as it was announced by head coach Ken Bone on Monday evening that Klay Thompson would play against the Huskies.
Thompson missed the final regular season game on Saturday against UCLA when he was cited for marijuana possession last Thursday night after the victory over USC. Against UCLA the Cougars suffered a heartbreaking 58-54 loss in overtime.
Had Thompson played, who knows what would've happened.
Coming into this season, the Huskies had beaten the Cougars four straight times and much had been made about Thompson in particular and his struggles against the Dawgs. But this season, the Cougars and Thompson have turned the tables and beaten the Huskies twice, in dominating fashion both times, even more so in Seattle, when the two teams last met back on Feb. 27.
One of the big reasons the Cougars took both games was because of the Huskies poor three point shooting which has been their golden ticket all year. The Huskies attempted and made more three point field goals than any team in the Pac-10 converting on 37 percent of them, good for second in the conference.
But against the Cougars and their stingy two-three zone, the Huskies combined to shoot just 19-58 in the two games, 32 percent.
A key player who did not play in the battle in Seattle was Husky junior, Scott Suggs, the top three point marksman in the conference who shot 46 percent on the year.
For the Cougars, it's still unclear on the status of point guard Reggie Moore. He sprained his ankle against USC and sat out Saturday while wearing a boot on his right foot. Against the Huskies, Moore average 14 points and almost five assists.
But Moore's absence on Saturday against UCLA proved just how valuable he is to this team. Against the Bruins, sloppy ball handling and costly unforced turnovers, especially in the last minute of regulation and in overtime, were the Cougars ultimate demise. Moore has played in 23 games this season and only twice has he committed over three turnovers.
Both teams have dropped three of their past five games and while the Huskies are currently projected as a ten seed in the tournament, I wouldn't say they are safe to get in if they were to lose on Thursday.
The Huskies are third in the nation averaging 84 points a game but they've not gone over 70 in their past three.
Before every Husky game on television, there's always a graphic posting the keys to the game and for the Husky opponents, it's usually referring to controlling the tempo. The Cougars have been able to do that with a combination of zone and man to man defense which prevents transition buckets. That's been a large factor for the Cougars having the number one field goal defense in the conference allowing opponents to shoot just 39 percent.
Another factor that has benefited the Cougars is how they defend Husky big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning. Bryan-Amaning, the Husky senior who was named to the first team all Pac-10 along with Most Improved Player has struggled mightily against Washington State and the constant double team.
Bryan-Amaning on the season shot 56 percent from the field but in two games against the Cougars, he was just four of 19 from the field including one of eight in Pullman back in January for a season low six points.
For the Cougars inside, DeAngelo Casto has come on strong to finish the season. His season average of 12 points and nearly seven rebounds to go along with one and half blocks a game was good enough to earn him all Pac-10 second team honors along with a spot on the all-defensive team.
Before Saturday's loss to UCLA, Casto had recorded a double-double in three straight games and against the Huskies this season he's averaged 15 points and ten rebounds.
Something to watch for is the intensity. Who's going to be the aggressor? Usually it's the Huskies as they like to run their opponents out of the gym but the Cougars have had all the answers this season.
Another factor one should keep an eye on is both teams keeping their emotions in check. Nearing the end of the game in Seattle, Husky guard Venoy Overton was given a technical after he elbowed Marcus Capers of the Cougars after Capers committed a hard foul on Bryan-Amaning. That caused a crowd of players to form underneath the basket bumping chests.
Because these teams played just eight days ago, I'm sure the emotions are raw and fresh. A hard foul will eventually subside, but a win for either team meaning a possible no-show in the NCAA tournament will last a lot longer.
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