Arrow-right Camera

Cougars in precarious spot in standings

Klay Thompson and the WSU Cougars play host to USC on Thursday and UCLA on Saturday. (Dean Hare / Associated Press)
Klay Thompson and the WSU Cougars play host to USC on Thursday and UCLA on Saturday. (Dean Hare / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – It’s the last week of the Pac-10 Conference regular season.

It’s not only time for scoreboard watching, but for breaking down the standings as well.

To recap: The top six teams in the conference don’t play next Wednesday, the first night of the Pac-10 tournament at LA’s Staples Center. The bottom four do. No one wants to be in the bottom four.

Washington State (18-10 overall) is 8-8 in conference play. That puts the Cougars at the cut line in sixth, a game ahead of Oregon. Thursday’s opponent at Friel Court, USC, is in fourth, but at 9-7 just a game ahead of the Cougars.

In between is California (9-8), which doesn’t play until Saturday, when it hosts Stanford (7-10).

If all those numbers are hurting your head, just remember one thing. If USC wins Thursday, the Trojans will not play next Wednesday. That’s guaranteed.

It’s not so simple for the Cougars. They have to win twice to ensure a day off, which would include a win over first-place UCLA on Saturday.

But that doesn’t matter just yet. To make it really matter, Washington State, whose late-season plunge was arrested by last Sunday’s win over Washington, first must find a way to get past the Trojans.

It’s a big task.

Mainly because of USC’s big men, 6-foot-10, 260-pound junior center Nikola Vucevic and 6-10, 250-pound senior Alex Stepheson.

The two combine for 19.1 rebounds and 27.5 points per game. Of those 19 rebounds, about six come on the offensive glass, as Stepheson and Vucevic are rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Pac-10 in that statistic.

“They’re big guys and they play physical,” said WSU’s 6-10, 230-pound Brock Motum, who will be asked to compete with the Trojans on the boards.

Though Vucevic is the player Washington State will focus most of its attention, Stepheson actually has hurt the Cougars for a longer period of time.

It started when the Los Angeles native was playing at North Carolina. He came off the bench in the Tar Heels’ 68-47 Sweet Sixteen defeat of the Cougars in 2008, playing 18 minutes, scoring four points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking three shots.

In the Trojans’ 60-56 win in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, Stepheson scored a team-high 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, four on the offensive end.

“He’s so strong,” said DeAngelo Casto, WSU’s main force in the middle at 6-8, 255 pounds. “And he anticipates offensive boards so well.”

What’s scary for WSU is that wasn’t Stepheson at his best. According to USC coach Kevin O’Neill, for part of the season Stepheson wasn’t giving enough effort. That’s changed.

“(At times) he didn’t play as hard as he needed to,” O’Neill said this week. “I’ve had talks with him, showed his some film what I thought he was capable of and he’s responded really well. He’s really playing like you want a fifth-year senior to play down the stretch.”

“We have to be aware of him, especially when we double Vucevic,” Bone said. “He’s very good at diving to the rim and scores quite a bit off of those passes. And then he’s just really good around the offensive glass.”

The Cougars like to double the opponent’s most dangerous big man and Vucevic fills that role. Not only has he moved up to third in the conference scoring statistics (17.5 points per game), but the USC offense revolves around him.

“I always tell him there is a lot of accountability and responsibility that comes with being the guy we run our offense through,” O’Neill said. “And he’s taken that to another level.

“Nikola has made some great strides in terms of how he manages the ball when we throw it to him, which is every time.”

In the last nine games, Vucevic, the conference’s reigning player of the week, has averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds.

“His last six games, with the exception of one game, have been really high level games,” O’Neill said. “And it goes back to him not turning the ball over in the post, making good decision, knowing when to shoot, when to pass.”

It’s noticed.

“Not to take anything away from (Isaiah) Thomas or Klay (Thompson) or (Derrick) Williams, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vucevic ends up being the best NBA player out of the group,” Bone said. “He’s got a great body, he has really good basketball instincts, he knows how to play.

“He’s also about 6-11. Those guys are hard to find as skilled as he is.”

“He’s just got such a dynamic game,” said Casto, who played well in the first matchup, with a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds. “He’s inside, he’s outside. He can rebound well and he can take contact. He shoots the ball well. He’s just a good player.”