SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Washington State and Gonzaga will finally meet as ranked teams. It only took 142 games.
More than just Palouse pride is on the line now that the Cougars are ranked No. 8 and the Zags are No. 17 - a win makes a nice statement for the NCAA selection committee in March.
``We're pretty excited,'' Washington State forward Robbie Cowgill said. ``There's a lot of buzz around campus.''
``My whole family is coming up from Colorado,'' Gonzaga guard Matt Bouldin said. ``Some people are offering me crazy amounts of money for tickets to this game.''
The Cougars (7-0) expect a raucous welcome from Gonzaga's notorious student section, known as the Kennel Club, at the Bulldogs' 6,000-seat arena. Some students have camped outside the arena for a week during a miserable snow and rain storm to secure tickets to the otherwise sold-out game.
``It's why you want to play major-college basketball,'' Cowgill said of the anticipation.
Cowgill, from Austin, Texas, became a Gonzaga fan during the team's first deep runs in the NCAA tournament.
``I didn't know where they were located,'' he admitted. ``But when they were in the tournament I pulled for them.''
When Cowgill first arrived on the WSU campus in Pullman, he found more Gonzaga than WSU fans. That has changed with the Cougars' improvement, with both programs now playing to full houses and chasing top recruits.
Gonzaga (7-1) is a Jesuit-run university of 6,300 students in downtown Spokane. Washington State is a land-grant university of more than 20,000 students 75 miles south on U.S. 195, in rural Pullman.
Both have legions of fans in Spokane, where Bulldogs and Cougars paraphernalia adorns offices, sports bars, auto bumpers and sweatshirts.
Washington State holds a 96-45 lead in the series. Other than a 1996 NIT game in which WSU beat Gonzaga, the games have rarely been meaningful outside Eastern Washington.
Gonzaga's rise to the premier ranks of the mid-majors coincided with a long decline for Washington State - a member of the Pacific-10 - that was not reversed until last year, when the Cougars posted their first winning record in a decade.
Washington State's upset of Gonzaga exactly one year ago in Pullman helped launch the Cougars to a 26-8 record that tied for most wins in team history. Before that, Gonzaga had won seven straight.
``Last year's game was the start of a very good year,'' WSU coach Tony Bennett said Tuesday. ``It established the start of a nice home court advantage.''
The Zags see it differently.
``We owe them one from last year,'' Gonzaga's David Pendergraft said.
Players and coaches report they have been deluged with ticket requests. Bennett even had to turn down legendary WSU quarterback Mark Rypien, a former Super Bowl MVP.
``I told him, 'Sorry, my man, I can't help you,''' Bennett said. ``But I did try.''
The game may turn on the play of some of the nation's top guards.
Washington State's Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low are both on the preseason top 50 list for the Wooden Award. The Zags counter with Pargo, also a Wooden top 50 pick, plus Bouldin and Micah Downs.
Washington State may have an advantage in the front, with Aron Baynes and Cowgill facing Gonzaga's Abdullahi Kuso and freshman Austin Daye. The Zags have more depth.
The Zags' high-powered offense averages 76.9 points per game. Washington State continues to depend on a defense that allows only 52.
One coach who has faced both teams this season was coy when asked to predict the winner.
``Gonzaga has a lot of talent,'' Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. ``But I was really impressed by the kind of team Washington State has.''
Last season, Washington State did not break into the Top 25 until Jan. 8, while Gonzaga fell out of the poll on Dec. 25. This year, both were ranked in the preseason.
Washington, stung by losses on the court and the recruiting trail to Gonzaga, recently dropped its annual game with the Bulldogs. That isn't likely to happen to WSU and Gonzaga.
``We have a ton of respect for how they run their program and recruit and coach,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ``Those are the teams you like to play.''
``It's great preparation for our conferences,'' Bennett said. ``I would hope it would continue.''

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