Jon Brockman doesn’t need to be reminded of the hex Washington State holds on Washington.
“I’ve never beat them,” said Washington’s burly junior forward. “They’re the only team in the Pac-10 I haven’t beaten.”
Sporting the highest ranking in school history and a 12-0 start, the No. 4 Cougars will open the Pac-10 Conference season Saturday night against rival Washington, trying for a sixth straight win over the Huskies for the first time since 1941-42.
That’s 66 years. Having any type of lengthy winning streak in the rivalry is rare for the Cougars. Only three times since 1942 have Cougars won four straight over Washington (9-4), let alone a six-pack.
“We just have to match their perfection almost,” Brockman said. “Rarely do they make mistakes and they really capitalize when other teams make mistakes.”
Both teams have a brutal slate to start the conference season. After Saturday night, both schools will head to Southern California next weekend to face No. 5 UCLA and No. 22 USC. After a brief return home for the Oregon schools, the two head back on the road to Arizona and Arizona State.
“I’m just so excited to do that. Five out of the first seven on the road, we’re really joyful about that,” Washington State coach Tony Bennett deadpanned. “It’s just he way the schedule falls.”
If there is any concern for the Cougars heading into conference play, it may be a little bit of rust. The Cougars have not been challenged since their 51-47 win at Gonzaga on Dec. 5 and they’ve played just four times since Dec. 9. Washington State won those four games by an average of 24 points.
The Cougars have sat around a vacant campus for the past week after beating North Carolina A&T 67-34 on Dec. 28 in Pullman.
“It was a ghost town,” Cougars guard Derrick Low said. “It’s going to help us in the long run, going through a grueling Pac-10 schedule is going to be tough. When it comes toward the end of the conference season the body is going to be fatigued, and having couple of days off here and there is good.”
Low and Kyle Weaver have again paced WSU’s offense, but it’s the Cougars’ defense that is allowing only 49.7 points, easily the best in the Pac-10. Only one team has scored more than 70 points on the Cougars and each of their last three opponents have been held to 45 points or less.
“I remember telling Tony Bennett a couple of years ago I thought they were right around the corner from being really good,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He downplayed it … but you could just see the makings of a selfless group that was not out there for personal attention or personal glory.”
As for the Huskies, they are riding a five-game win streak, that would be six had Justin Dentmon’s last-second shot against Pittsburgh left his hand a second quicker. Washington lost that Dec. 8 game 75-74.
The difference for Washington has also come at the defensive end. Each of its last five opponents was held under 66 points, and the Huskies limited Idaho State to just 50 points in an 82-50 romp on Monday.
The turnaround for the Huskies came after their 96-71 loss Dec. 1 at Oklahoma State, where the players finally realized a defensive focus was needed.
“I think it woke everyone up that we have to play defense a certain type of way here, or things aren’t going to change and keep happening like this,” Washington’s Ryan Appleby said.
Tim Morris and Joel Smith are the only current Huskies to have beaten Washington State, and Morris’ win came while he was at Stanford. Washington’s last win against its rival was Feb. 19, 2005, a 68-55 victory in Pullman.
“No one likes losing at anything, whether it’s a board game or anything. Especially basketball,” Brockman said. “It’s something we really want to do.”