Washington State and Gonzaga have played each other 141 times, but they’ve never met when both were in the Top 25.
That changes Wednesday, when the unbeaten and eighth-ranked Cougars travel 75 miles to Spokane to face the No. 17 Bulldogs.
The programs first met during the 1907-08 season, and Washington State leads the series 96-45. The Cougars (7-0), though, have seen the series turn around recently as Gonzaga (7-1) has become a national power over the past decade.
Washington State had lost seven straight to the Bulldogs, who were ranked during six of the last seven meetings, before beating them 77-67 last Dec. 5 - one year before Wednesday’s game. The Cougars moved into the poll about a month later and stayed there the rest of the season, then earned a preseason ranking this season for the first time in school history.
They have validated it with seven consecutive wins - the same start the 2006-07 team had before suffering its first loss. Washington State hasn’t won its first eight games since 1991-92, when it was 12-0.
Second-year coach Tony Bennett’s team is coming off its toughest test of the season, which it passed by winning 67-64 at Baylor in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series on Friday. The Bears held Cougars leading scorer Derrick Low scoreless in the first half while putting Washington State in a 12-point hole at the break, but two late 3-pointers by Low capped the comeback win.
“They’re about as good as it gets in terms of character,” Bennett said of his team. “They showed they were a better team in the second half. The first half they looked like they were freshmen, but then they showed that they were experienced players.”
Washington State got four of five starters back from last season’s 26-8 team, and has three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, all of whom average at least 8.7 points. Senior forward Robbie Cowgill matched a career high with 18 points against Baylor, while Kyle Weaver (12.0 ppg) and Taylor Rochestie (11.3) join Low (14.6) in double digits.
The experienced Cougars are allowing 52.1 points per game, among the fewest in the nation.
Gonzaga is a much younger group, with sophomore Matt Bouldin (14.4 ppg) and freshman Austin Daye (13.1) leading the team in scoring. The Bulldogs continue to play without 6-foot-11 junior forward Josh Heytvelt, who could return from ankle surgery in a few weeks.
Jeremy Pargo scored a career high-tying 23 points and reserve Micah Downs had 14 points and 11 rebounds Saturday, lifting Gonzaga over Connecticut 85-82 at The Hartford Hall of Fame Showcase in Boston.
Pargo had eight points in the final 4:17 to lead Gonzaga to its third straight win since falling to Texas Tech at the Great Alaska Shootout on Nov. 23.
The Bulldogs spent about 48 hours in Spokane between the Alaska trip and an East Coast swing against St. Joseph’s and UConn. They haven’t played at home since Nov. 17.
“Once you play basketball all that goes away,” Pargo said of the travel. “If you think about it you come away with a loss. We play basketball. You can’t think about things like that. You have NBA guys play back-to-back games for 82 games.”
Gonzaga is 3-0 at home, outscoring opponents there by an average of 80.3-48.3. The Bulldogs have won 54 of their last 56 home games, including three straight against the Cougars.