TEMPE, Ariz. – One thing about being in the sun: complexions change.
Such is the case with tonight’s Washington State basketball game here in the Valley of the Sun.
Two days ago it could have been billed as a showdown for first place in the Pac-10 Conference. Today, it’s a must-win game for both.
The 24th-ranked Sun Devils (14-4, 4-2) lost Thursday at home to Washington 72-61 as UW’s Jon Brockman dominated inside with 22 points and 16 rebounds. The Cougars (16-2, 4-2) couldn’t stop Arizona from the outside, allowing the Wildcats to shoot 55 percent and losing in Tucson 76-64.
“I didn’t come in with any preconceived notions like, ‘We’ve got to get to Saturday for this big-time matchup, the showdown of the two teams that have come from the ashes,’ ” WSU coach Tony Bennett said after the Cougars’ practice Friday in the ASU Student Recreation Center. “No. We wanted to come in and play good ball and get a victory against Arizona and that didn’t happen.
“Now we just want to establish quality basketball and do it against Arizona State.”
But that might be easier to say than accomplish. Tonight’s contest may mean more to the Sun Devils for two reasons: They are at home and, with back-to-back losses to Stanford and UW, this year’s Pac-10 surprise might be on the verge of having its bubble burst.
“They are coming off a hard loss at home and they’re going to be revved up to protect home court, we understand that,” Bennett said. “We know we have to (bounce back), it’s early in the race. It’s a game where you are on the road and you have to fight like crazy to be in those games and, hopefully, steal them at the end.”
With UCLA doing just that, rallying for an 80-75 road win against Oregon, the Bruins (16-2, 5-1) took over sole possession of first place in the conference. So, the WSU-ASU loser drops into a tie for third, probably two games behind UCLA, which plays at last-place Oregon State.
“Coach Tony was telling us today that, after you get it taken to you like it was to us last night, we can do one of two things,” Derrick Low said. “We could either come back and fight like mad men or we can accept defeat and hang our heads.
“I think we will push to fight like mad men.”
One Cougar who is mad about his personal struggles is Robbie Cowgill. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging just 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in Pac-10 play and was part of WSU’s first lineup change of the season Thursday.
Daven Harmeling replaced Cowgill in the starting lineup and scored eight points in the first 5 minutes. The change may have helped Harmeling – and the Cougars, who led 16-12 after 9 minutes – but didn’t help Cowgill, who finished with no points, two rebounds and just three shots in 14 minutes. It happened in front of family, who drove from Austin, Texas, to watch him play.
The lineup adjustment doesn’t bother Cowgill, but his Pac-10 performances sure do.
“It’s fine with me – it seemed to help our start,” he said of coming off the bench. “I thought maybe it would help me play better, just getting a feel for it and coming in. It didn’t and I’m pretty frustrated with how I’m playing right now.
“Myself and the coaches are both trying to figure out what can get me going. That’s what’s so frustrating, we can’t figure it out.”
Despite the Cougars decent offensive start, Bennett wasn’t sure the defense was where he would like it early – and throughout the game – so Cowgill might be back in the starting lineup tonight.
“We had been talking all week about being a pack team, playing team defense, and (Arizona) kind of diced us up,” Cowgill said.
The Cougars didn’t get to practice at Wells Fargo Arena because of a gymnastics meet scheduled for Friday night. The equipment was already in place early in the day. … When jokingly asked if he had “mad men,” in him, Low joked back. “I am a mad man,” he said. He then explained, “Some of us are real mellow, laid back, but we all have that heart and stuff on the basketball court. I think we all want it a lot and we’re going to come out ready tomorrow.” … Cowgill had a streak of 82 consecutive starts broken, WSU’s fourth longest since the 1982-83 season. The most consecutive starts since then are Mark Hendrickson, 108 (1992-96); Isaac Fontaine, 90 (1993-97); and Keith Morrison, 86 (1982-86).