With every victory it gets in its improbable romp through the Pac-10, Washington State comes one step closer to becoming the winningest Cougars team in the past 60 years.
Standing in their way — the 1982-83 Cougars, whose 23-7 record is the most wins since 1947.
And in the thin legacy of WSU men's basketball, this season's team (21-4 entering tonight's game at Washington) and its counterpart of 24 years ago continue to find themselves linked.
This season's Cougars are the first since then to be ranked, the first to sweep Arizona.
From afar, many of the members of that '82-83 team watch as proud and thankful alums, realizing the success of this year's Cougars has finally given reason to remember what they did.
Chris Winkler, a sophomore guard on that team, and a few of his five kids were watching the WSU-Oregon game from their home in Beaverton, Ore., when suddenly clips of the '82-83 team burst on the screen.
"It's kind of fun," Winkler said. "My kids were like, 'Dad, look at your shorts. Look at your hair.' Some of their friends said, 'I saw your dad on TV.' "
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The Cougars that year went 14-4 in Pac-10 play, finishing second by a game behind UCLA, and beat Weber State in the first round of what was then a 53-team NCAA tournament before losing to No. 1 seed Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the second round.
Along the way, they won 11 games by four or fewer points in the final season of George Raveling's 11-year tenure.
"We were a team of role players and people who really accepted their roles," said Raveling, now retired from coaching and working for Nike. "It wasn't a hard team to coach because the players bought into the system and once we gathered some momentum, with every game we just became more and more confident.
"That's probably the same with this year's team."
That team was deep enough that its best-known player, Craig Ehlo, who played 14 seasons in the NBA, was only the third-leading scorer at 12 points per game in his senior season. Ten players started five games or more as Raveling mixed and matched, and none started all 30.
And like this team, there was little local presence — forward Aaron Haskins, a Tacoma native and the team's sixth man, was the lone player from Washington in the rotation.
Raveling had built the Cougars into a winner by stocking the roster with players from all over. Forward Bryan Pollard hailed from Detroit, Ehlo from Lubbock, Texas.
Ehlo was playing at a junior college and was set to go to Texas until coach Abe Lemons was fired. Then he was headed to Baylor until Raveling saw him, invited him to a UCLA-WSU game, and convinced him his best route to the NBA was through the Pac-10.
"We were a close team because we were all that we had," Ehlo said. "We were the only people we knew on campus, so the time we spent out of the classroom was usually in the gym playing together."
There were also four Californians on the roster, led by forwards Guy Williams and Steve Harriel. The 6-foot-9 Williams, whose all-around abilities drew stylistic comparisons to Magic Johnson, was a transfer from San Francisco. Harriel was just 6-6 but often was the team's best low-post scorer.
The returning talent — Ehlo, Harriel, Williams and Haskins were all seniors — had Raveling thinking the team would at least make the NIT.
But the Cougars started 3-2 and Winkler remembers a team meeting at a hotel in Missoula following a loss to Montana, the seniors "saying we've got to pick this up." The Cougars proceeded to win 12 straight, with Williams setting a school record with 43 points in a victory over Idaho State.
But in the 10th of those wins, at Oregon, Williams, averaging 18 points, tore his ACL while doing nothing other than dribbling the ball up the court and trying to spin past a defender.
"It was the strangest thing you ever saw," Raveling said. "No one touched him."
Williams, now working in the Seattle School District, missed the rest of the season, and while he had a three-year NBA career, Raveling wonders what might have been.
"He was the most talented player I ever coached," said Raveling, who coached Harold Miner at USC and B.J. Armstrong at Iowa. "He would have had a great NBA career."
But Ehlo and Harriel stepped into leadership roles and the winning continued. Their No. 18 ranking came after a home sweep of Cal and Stanford the weekend after the trip to Oregon. They quickly fell out of the rankings losing three of the next four — all on the road — starting with a double overtime loss at UCLA.
The Cougars, though, rallied to win five in a row to set up a Monday night showdown with UCLA at Friel Court. Students began camping out for seats the minute a Saturday night overtime win against USC ended, and the crowd of 12,422 remains a school record.
The Cougars and UCLA, which had been ranked No. 1 a few weeks prior and featured Kenny Fields, Darren Daye, Rod Foster and Michael Holton, were tied at 68 with three seconds left, WSU inbounding near its bench.
Without timeouts, Raveling told Winkler — adept at hitting from the corner — "to get it and shoot it." Winkler did, with the shot glancing off the front rim. Winkler thought time had run out. But Pollard, a high-flying 6-4 swingman, swooped in to tip the ball in at the buzzer.
Ehlo and Winkler still laugh, saying it was the longest three seconds in basketball. "We definitely got some home cooking," Ehlo said.
Winkler says the Cougars were flat after the big win over UCLA and blew a chance to tie for the conference title five days later at UW, losing 76-75.
They were sent to Boise and beat Weber, setting up a game with Virginia. Raveling thought WSU had a chance to offset Sampson with better guard play. The game was tied on several occasions late, but Virginia used some clutch free throws to win, 54-49.
The good times didn't last long. Along with the departures of the four seniors — all drafted in the days of a 10-round NBA draft — Raveling left a few weeks later to take over at Iowa to replace Lute Olson, who had gone to Arizona.
"Boom," said Winkler. "Next thing you know, it's over."
WSU has made just one NCAA appearance since then (1994 under Kelvin Sampson, losing in the first round) and hasn't finished higher than fourth in the conference.
"I just hope these guys are enjoying it," said Haskins, now a pastor. "We had so much fun. Just great fun."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.