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John Blanchette: Pac-10 ripe for Cougars to pounce

To review: In the past week, Oregon State suffered a 51-point defeat at home to a school that hasn’t played Division I basketball in 30 years, then showed up in Eugene a few days later and beat the team which sat atop the Pacific-10 Conference standings. And so we put it to you, the college basketball fan:

Why not the Cougs?

Why can’t this be the year Washington State wins the Pac-10 championship?

Yes, it may seem like a strange time to ask, given that Wazzu itself is coming off a 25-point drubbing at Arizona State, where the team’s watches apparently had been synchronized by Harpo Marx. But in the current state of the Pac-10, that can mean only one thing: The Cougs have the other teams right where they want them.

This is the year. Seriously.

OK, maybe not seriously seriously. It’s hard to apply much in the way of sober assessments to Pac-10 hoops, unless perhaps it’s last rites.

The rim shots started in November and December, when UCLA lost three straight in its backyard to the non-pedigreed likes of Portland, Butler and Long Beach State, which is a little like Pavarotti getting run off “American Idol.”

And then the indignities began to mount. The league went 3-7 in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series and 9-24 against the other BCS conferences. It lost games to nuclear powers from the Big Sky, Big West, Horizon, Southland and Summit. Not until Dec. 19 did it manage a victory over a ranked team – USC beating Tennessee – and on Christmas Day the Trojans did it again, whipping UNLV. Naturally, shortly after New Year’s it was announced that the Trojans were throwing themselves on the mercy of the NCAA for associating with O.J. Mayo’s pimp, and thus wouldn’t be eligible to carry the Pac-10 banner, tattered though it may be, in the postseason.

Things could have been worse, but Washington coach Lorenzo Romar won’t let his Huskies cross the street to play.

The reasons – or excuses – were easy to grasp. Graduations and a two-year wave of early NBA defections had siphoned off too much talent. Rosters were ridiculously young. California, Oregon and USC had been hit hard by injury.

But frankly, Pac-10 basketball is sorrier than Mark McGwire and Tiger Woods put together.

The league’s coaches couldn’t wait to return to the cocoon of the conference season, when surely a comfortable pecking order could be established – veteran Cal and mercurial UW on top, USC snuggled up close, an eager middle class and then Stanford free to devote extra time to academics. Except that two weeks into the season, eight teams have two wins apiece, and Washington – ranked 14th at season’s launch – is dead last with three double-digit losses.

And now the ultimate nadir – until the next one. When the Associated Press Top 25 came out this week, no Pac-10 team was mentioned.

Not just among the ranked. None received so much as a single vote.

Yes, this has happened before – Jan. 21, 1986. It was only a Top 20 then, and the Pac-10 hoops was so depressed that it didn’t have a team in the rankings all season, or much of the following year.

“We didn’t get enough nonconference wins early,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “When you don’t get those, it’s hard to climb your way back into the Top 25 and when you lose at all, you’re out of it.”

At the moment, only Cal is among the Top 50 in RPI, and it would be no surprise if the league’s NCAA bids barely inched into the plural. But from parity – especially mediocre parity – opportunity is born, which brings us back to the Cougs.

It should be pointed out, harkening back to the football deliverance of 1997, that Wazzu has now gone longer between conference basketball titles (69 years) than it did between Rose Bowls (67). But the Cougs should be atop the standings now as it is, had they not been fleeced of an overtime win against Oregon, which has yet to try to inbound the ball for its last shot. Yes, their best nonconference win from an RPI standpoint was (gulp) Idaho. Yes, in a conference crumbling from inexperience, no roster is as callow as theirs. The only person getting ganged up on harder than Klay Thompson these days is Janet Napolitano.

And no one seems to be in their corner.

“Both Cal and Washington are going to be there at the end,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “That’s my general feeling.”

So it’s counterintuitive. So what?

In a conference that’s been doing everything wrong, don’t you think the Cougs have to be right?

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