The final five games of the Pac-10 season come against teams in the conference's top six. That sixth-place team is USC, the Cougars' first opponent on this weekend's trip to Los Angeles. Washington State has been pretty successful against the Trojans in Tony Bennett's tenure, but this one won't be easy. For the unedited version of our advance, go ahead and read on.
• I don't know how much you know about the LA Basin, but February is probably the best month to be here. It usually rains enough to dampen the smog but not so much as to make every day miserable. A decent rainstorm is usually followed by a crystal clear, warm-enough-to-wear-shorts day. Such is the forecast for this weekend. Warm weather and In-and-Out. ... OK, back to basketball. Here's the story along with some notes …
LOS ANGELES – One of the simplest instruments to play in an elementary school band is the triangle. Hold it on the top, put a metal wand inside and bang away. In rhythm of course.
But when USC pulled out a triangle-and-two defense against Washington State in the teams' first meeting in Pullman four weeks ago, there was nothing easy about for the Cougars.
The Trojans banged away at Aron Baynes and rendered Klay Thompson and Taylor Rochestie – the two Cougars covered man-to-man while the other three USC players played a triangle zone – nearly silent. WSU just never got in rhythm.
"I would sort of expect it again because it worked," said senior forward Caleb Forrest going into tonight's second meeting of the season with USC. "Guys like me and other guys who were open weren't hitting shots. So it seemed to be a good defensive plan for them."
Forrest came into the first USC game off his best performance as a Coug, having converted 8 of 9 shots for a career-high 19 points against UCLA. But against the Trojans Forrest suffered through a 1 of 11 shooting night as WSU lost 46-44.
But Forrest wasn't the only Cougar who didn't shoot well that night – or Trojan for that matter. WSU (13-12 overall, 5-8 in Pac-10 play) hit just 14 of 51 shots (a season-low 27.5 percent) against USC's triangle, box-and-1 and man defenses. The Trojans weren't much better, making just 35 percent of their shots, but they did hit 19 of 31 free throws to grab the win.
Thompson led WSU with 15 points, Baynes added 12 and Rochestie was held to six shots and six points. The six other Cougars who played combined for 11 points.
"I hope not," said WSU coach Tony Bennett when asked if he expected the same type of game tonight at the Galen Center. "They'll try to take your two good players out of your offense. You have to have other players step up."
Which is what the USC players did in Pullman. The Trojans (15-9, 6-6) were without leading scorer Dwight Lewis (15.5 points per game), who missed the game with an ankle sprain. Center Taj Gibson, who averages 13.9 points and 9.6 rebounds, filled the gap down the stretch, scoring 10 consecutive points as USC rallied from an eight-point deficit.
"He's their leading perimeter scorer who provides an outside threat," Bennett said of Lewis, who tweaked the same ankle at practice Tuesday and didn't return to drills.
NOTES: USC is on a three-game losing streak, all on the road. WSU has lost four of its last five. ... The Trojans have yet to lose this year when they turn the ball over less than their opponents. Washington State has 25 more turnovers than it has forced, though the Cougars commit a Pac-10 low 11.4 per game. They force just 10.4. ... Freshman Nikola Vucevic made his first career start in Pullman and set career marks with eight points and five rebounds. He's missed the last two games with a lower back strain. ... WSU still leads the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense (38 percent) while USC is third, in a virtual tie with ASU at 40.6 percent.
• Here are the items we put together for our Four Corners page. Remember, this runs in Thursday's paper. …
WSU THIS WEEKEND
RECORD: 5-8 Pac-10, 13-12 overall
COMING UP: Tonight at USC, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at UCLA, noon, FSN
OUTLOOK: The last time WSU and USC got together, the Trojans (6-6, 15-9) were without leading scorer Dwight Lewis, who averages 15.5 points per game, out due to an ankle injury. Both teams struggled to score, with USC winning 46-44. This time the Trojans will probably be without backup forward Marcus Johnson, who has a shoulder injury. No. 20 UCLA (8-4, 19-6) will face No. 22 Washington (10-3, 19-6) tonight in a game that could go a long way in deciding who wins the Pac-10 title. In the Bruins' 61-59 win in Pullman, forward Nikola Dragovic had a career-high 20 points, hitting 6 of his first 7 3-pointers.
Freshman Klay Thompson is on a roll offensively. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard has upped his Pac-10 scoring average to 15.2 points per game while hitting 51.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. He's scored 25 and 20 in WSU's last two contests.
"He's been real solid," WSU coach Tony Bennett said. "He's, at times, creating his own shot. He's playing a little sounder (with) good shot selection. You're seeing his range.
"He's just improving. He's a heck of player. He's got a nice future as he gets stronger."
Thompson is fourth on the Cougars' freshmen scoring list with 332 points. He should pass Mark Hendrickson (339 points in 1993) tonight. Second on the list is George Hamilton, who scored 352 points in 1945. Steve Puidokas, second on WSU's career scoring list, leads the freshmen with 454 points in 1974.
Thompson is second among all Washington State's freshmen in scoring average (13.3), field goals (127) and 3-point field goals (54). He could pass Bennie Seltzer (62 in 1990) in the latter category this weekend.
Washington State's final home game against Arizona State has been added to FSN's television schedule and will tip off at 2 p.m.
• That's it for this evening. We'll be back in the morning with more. Till then …