BY Bob Sherwin 08:57AM 01/28/2011

A rivalry? UW, Wazzu finally good at the same time

The two schools never have finished among the Pac-10’s top three teams. Maybe this season?

Washington State's Klay Thompson leads the Pac-10 in scoring with a 22.2 average / SSC Photo

When Washington and Washington State get after each other in a critical nationally televised Pac-10 basketball game Sunday night, one of the Pac-10’s longest-held traditions could be in jeopardy.

It’s also something neither school prefers to continue.

Remarkably, since the conference expanded from eight teams to 10 in 1978-79 – adding the Arizona schools – the Huskies and the Cougars never have finished among the league’s top three teams in the same season.

In fact, the two schools have finished in the upper division together just twice over the past 31 years – 1980 (WSU-3rd; UW-5th) and 1982 (WSU-5th; UW-4th).

The last time the Huskies and Cougars finished among the top three teams was 1951 (UW-1st; WSU-3rd). That was just a five-team North Division of the old Pacific Coast Conference.

The reality is, these two schools can’t seem to get it together – except when it’s the lower division. Since 1978, they have been among the bottom-feeders 11 times together.

“UCLA and Arizona have really dominated,” WSU second-year coach Ken Bone said. “Now it seems to be Washington. That’s a team clearly ahead in the Pac-10. That’s where we want to be. We want to be in the upper tier.

“We have the opportunity (Sunday) to beat a very good team and put ourselves in a good situation.”

The 18th-ranked Huskies enter the game with a 15-4 record, 7-1 in the Pac-10. They lead the league by one game as they are off to their best conference start since 1987. The Cougars are 14-6 and in fourth place with a 4-4 record.

Sandwiched between them are the traditional powers, Arizona (17-4, 6-2) and UCLA (13-7, 5-3). The Wildcats solidified second place with a 85-74 victory over the Bruins tonight in Tucson.

From the Cougars perspective, a victory over the Huskies will accomplish much, not the least of which will be a win over their rival. But they now are within range of the Bruins, who are just a half game ahead. UCLA plays at Wazzu in the final regular-season game March 5.

If the Cougars can leapfrog over UCLA, which is not the most dominant team in its illustrious history, they put themselves in position to be the third conference team considered for the NCAA Tournament. They also would have victories over two nationally ranked team, the Huskies and No. 15 Baylor (77-71 Dec. 23 in Hawaii).

Imagine that, the two Washington Pac-10 teams in the national field? That also has never happened.

Washington has been to the tournament 15 times (1943, 48, 51, 53, 76, 84, 85, 86, 98, 99, 2004, 05, 06, 09 and 10). Wazzu has been there six times (1941, 80, 83, 94, 2007 and 08), but never in the same season.

It might not be readily apparent, but this could be the glory years for the two schools. Or at least the glory months.

“I would hope so,” Bone said. “We don’t have any seniors right now. I’m anxious to get a class of experienced upperclassmen. Look over the past 25, 30, 40 years, teams that have done well here, those teams have had good players who were juniors and seniors.

“I feel like we’ve improved since last year. We played better basketball, although our record is about the same. But we’ve been able to handle adversity in most games…so I’ve seen the growth of this team.”

Klay Thompson, a 6-foot-6 junior who is the Pac-10 scoring leader at 22.2 ppg, may not get to that senior season. The son of NBA legend Mychal Thompson could be a possible NBA first rounder if he decides to declare for the draft.

“When Klay was a freshman, at the time we played him he had gone to foul line 22 times the whole year,” UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He has changed a lot since then. He’s getting a lot of steals, a lot of assists and he’s getting to the foul line. He has evolved into so much more of a complete basketball player.”

Thompson has no doubt heard the cautionary advice from scouts and coaches that he needs more muscle and seasoning. He’s not there yet, but that hasn’t stopped others from leaving in the past.

DeAngelo Castro, a 6-8, 255-pound junior forward, also has been the subject of bolting speculation. Bone’s hope for a talented and proficient senior class could leak with defections.

What Bone wants is what Washington currently has, an experienced upper class.

“They are better than they were last year when we played them (59-52 loss at Pullman),” he said. “We don’t talk about it but I think all our guys understand a win over a ranked team will be really helpful.

“Washington is really good and they are ranked. I don’t see that changing. They will be in the top 25, top 20 probably the rest of the season. It will be a huge win for our program if we can pull that off.”

So much motivation for the Cougars. That’s not an issue. This is a victory the Cougars desperately need far more than the first-place Huskies.


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