Sure, Wazzu garnered some minor press back in December, when the Cougars trounced Mississippi State and handled Baylor on their way to a second-place finish in the Diamond Head Classic. It was clear then that this team was better than most of the non-Washington, non-Arizona portions of the Pac-10. If the Pac-10 had a potential third NCAA at-large bid to win, the Cougars appeared likely be the team that won it.
A few weeks and one very large win later -- Sunday night's 87-80 win over Washington at the Wallis Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum, and yes, I included the arena name because I like the words "Wallis Beasley" used in succession (and no, I don't know why) -- that perception hasn't much changed. If any non-UA, non-UW team can make it out of the Pac-10 thanks to an at-large bid, Washington State is going to be that team.
The Cougars' résumé isn't the prettiest thing you've ever seen, but it's not too bad, either. Some of the Cougars' losses have been less than pretty (an 84-68 loss to Butler, a 63-58 home loss to Kansas State, road losses to Cal, UCLA, and USC), and they don't have a ton of good wins to speak of. But the neutral-court win over Baylor still looks OK, and Sunday night's win over Washington should help Wazzu get the attention of the selection committee in a much more serious way.
Hopefully someone from that committee watched Sunday night's game, because it was full of impressive moments from this Washington State team. Perhaps none were more impressive than Klay Thompson's steal with 1:20 remaining in the second half. As Washington scrambled to stay in a suddenly out-of-reach game, the Cougars extended their impressive zone to trap Huskies guard Scott Suggs in the corner. As Suggs looked to reverse the ball, Thompson anticipated the pass almost preternaturally early -- if you watch the replay, you'll see Thompson takes off from his spot in the lane almost before Suggs throws the pass -- elevated to make the catch and the steal and dribbled the ball down court before eventually earning a fast-break foul.
The game was probably already over, but that highlight did it for me. This Washington State team plays quality defense, has a versatile, athletic star in Thompson (who scored 25 points and had five steals and four assists in the win), is very difficult to beat on its home court and, as of last night, has at least one truly quality win to boost its NCAA tournament chances.
It's far from a done deal, but it's hard not to like the Cougars as a potential tournament team going forward. And if this team can play 75 percent as well on the road as it's played at home, a few more "quality" wins should be soon to follow.