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Blanchette: Cougs primed to win elusive Pac-10 title

In the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that just 50 weeks ago in this space, the following question was posed:

Why can’t Washington State win the Pac-10 basketball championship?

The Cougars spent the next nine weeks answering it. They finished last.

I’m not sure how it’s possible to be off by 10 places with a non-prediction that was even less sincere than a president vowing to repeal tax cuts for the rich. But I do know there’s every chance I’ll beat that record in a year when the conference expands by two teams.

In any case, I’m back and so is the question:

Why not the Cougs? Why not this year?

And this time it is sincere. Really. Honest.

Well, sort of.

Yes, yes – Washington is the overwhelming favorite, based on a glittering résumé of losses A) to the only ranked teams it’s faced and B) in the only road game it’s bothered to play. Arizona has had a nice little run of victories against teams that showed up in matching uniforms. UCLA beat one of the two Montana schools it played, so the Bruins have that going for them, though they appear to be ducking Carroll and Rocky Mountain.

What I’m worming my way around to saying is that the Cougars are contenders because they’re demonstrably – maybe even drastically – better than a year ago.

And because the Pac-10 isn’t.

Washington State coach Ken Bone is not one to endorse the back end of that premise, offering that “there should be” better buzz for the conference this season.

“But my TV never got on one time when I was in Hawaii,” said Bone, back on the mainland after the Cougars’ runner-up finish to Butler in the Diamond Head Classic, “so I’m not sure what they’re saying out there right now.”

So far did the Pac-10 fall off the radar last season that nothing much at all is being said. If there’s a suggestion of improvement, it’s in the same way that the penny-farthing bicycle was an improvement on the velocipede.

The damage last year was ghastly. Only two teams made the NCAA tournament. UCLA, the old gold standard, went 14-18. Oregon State lost to Seattle by 51 points – at home. And for the first time since 1986, there were weeks when the conference didn’t get so much as a vote in the Associated Press poll.

And what’s so much better this year? The Pac-10 is 11-19 against other BCS conferences instead of 9-24. Nobody’s in the Top 25. Seattle beat Oregon State again – but only by three. Pac-10 teams have lost to representatives of the Big Sky, Ohio Valley, Metro Atlantic and Great West conferences. UW’s first league opponent, USC, was rolled by Rider – not the truck rental.

“Play those same teams right now and I guarantee the score changes,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

Say, there’s an idea – do-overs.

We have heard the reasons for the Pac-10’s basketball malaise before, but they’re becoming less convincing. The league was gutted by early defections to the NBA, we were told – but the Big 12 and Big East have had more underclassmen drafted in the last three years than the Pac-10. Coaching turnover has destroyed continuity – seven schools have coaches in their third year or less. But two years ago, the Big 12 had nine such relative newbies and still sent six teams to the NCAAs.

Whether the Cougars end their championship drought – at 69 years now longer than the school went without a Rose Bowl trip until 1997 – they are at least legitimately NCAA tournament caliber. They sent Baylor tumbling out of the Top 25 in Hawaii and routed Gonzaga impressively before that. Nor have they stumbled against a Texas Southern or an Idaho.Though not imposing inside, they seem to be have been significantly underrated there. There are more ways to counter the swarming attention scoring leader Klay Thompson encountered a year ago. And Thompson himself is, well, better.

“He’s assisting, he’s defending and doing a lot of other things – and he seems to be enjoying himself more,” Romar said. “He’s become more of a complete player.

“He’s an assassin, man. He means business.”

And the Pac-10? Well, it’s been mostly funny business again.

“I know as a conference we lost a couple games early that we shouldn’t have – but so did a lot of other conferences,” Bone insisted. “I think the league is a little better than last year and I think next year we’ll even be a little better.”

So there’s no time like the present – unless it was last year.

No need to remind me how that turned out. Honest.