SEATTLE – Three weeks ago, the outlook was dim. Today, it’s a lot brighter, but the light still may not illuminate the ultimate goal of the Washington State men’s basketball team.
“We always want to play in the postseason, and the NCAA tournament, that’s always our No. 1 goal,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said recently.
But when the road was covered in mist, Bennett decided to emphasis the journey – playing well – and not the hard-to-see destination – the postseason.
Since then, which roughly corresponds to WSU’s trip to Los Angeles, the Cougars have played their best basketball of the season.
In order they have:
•Upset then-No. 14 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, only WSU’s second win in that arena;
•Hammered Arizona, then winners of seven of its previous eight games, in Pullman;
•And locked down then-No. 14 Arizona State, winning 51-49 in overtime on Taylor Rochestie’s 28-footer with 2.3 seconds left.
The three-game streak has lifted WSU to 8-9 in Pac-10 play (16-13 overall) and given the Cougars a vision of finishing as high as fifth in the conference and playing longer into March. Though, according to Rochestie, that’s for later.
“I don’t know,” Rochestie said this week when asked if WSU has done enough to ensure postseason play. “I think we’re rolling the right way and I think we’re playing Washington on Saturday. That’s going to be enough to worry about for the time being.”
A lot of the electricity the Cougars are exuding comes from the momentum of their recent winning streak, a buzz that might be tough to extend.
What with the 16th-ranked Huskies ready to apply a buzz-kill today.
“You have great players playing great,” Rochestie said of UW. “You’ve got (Jon) Brockman, you have Isaiah Thomas, you have (Justin) Dentmon playing the best basketball he’s played, and (Quincy) Pondexter is another guy who can be as good as anybody.”
The Huskies already applied one damper on WSU’s season, breaking open a tight game late and winning 68-48 in the Pac-10 opener in Pullman 10 weeks ago. UW snapped a seven-game losing streak against WSU behind the 19 points of the freshman Thomas, 17 from Dentmon and 16 from Pondexter. Since then, UW has clinched at least a tie for the Pac-10 crown, a prize it can lock down for itself with a win today.
“Certainly, Washington has improved, you can see that,” Bennett said. “I hope we’ve improved as well. … With the mix of personnel we have, with so many young kids and seniors identifying their roles, I hope we’re better in that standpoint.”
Improved enough to earn an NCAA at-large berth?
Bennett won’t go that far, though he did ask a group of reporters this week what they felt WSU needed to do to get into the NCAAs for a third consecutive season.
“I’m going against what I said,” he added. “I decided not to worry about it, you know, I just want us to play well and (be happy with) wherever that puts us.
“I’ve never been good at forecasting that type of stuff.”
There is a way to ensure an NCAA berth, of course. Win the Pac-10 tournament.
But for the Cougars to do that, they know they would be better off not having to extend their energy over four days, which would be the case if they finish seventh or lower in the regular season.
To avoid that, according to the Pac-10 office, all WSU needs to do is win today. The Cougars would finish no worse than sixth in either a two-way tie at 9-9 with Arizona or USC or a three-way tie if all three finish at .500.
Then they’ll let the chips fall where they will.
“I hope we’re in (the NCAA) conversation, that would be great,” said Bennett.