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Originally published Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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WSU men's basketball cracks Top 25

Fresh from upsetting Arizona, Washington State appeared on The Associated Press Top 25 men's basketball poll for the first time in a generation...

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — Fresh from upsetting Arizona, Washington State appeared on The Associated Press Top 25 men's basketball poll for the first time in a generation on Monday, debuting at No. 22 in a tie with Notre Dame.

It was the first time since a one-week appearance in 1983 that the Cougars (14-2, 3-1 Pac-10) have been ranked in the Top 25. They are No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll.

Picked last in the Pac-10's preseason media poll, the Cougars are off to their best start in more than a decade under first-year coach Tony Bennett. They beat No. 7 Arizona 77-73 in overtime on Saturday, which dropped the Wildcats to No. 10 on the latest poll.

The Cougars began receiving votes after they beat Gonzaga on Dec. 5. This season they also lost just 55-52 at No. 1 UCLA, and beat USC.

Their sweep of Arizona State and Arizona last week turned enough heads to earn 214 poll points.

"It's a sign of where our program is headed, but it doesn't mean we have arrived," said sophomore Daven Harmeling, who scored 28 points on Saturday in the Arizona win.

Bennett is also playing it cautious.

"It's a start, and that's all it is," Bennett said. "We're in the No. 1-ranked conference in the country, and we have 14 games to go, so we have to keep that same fighting mentality."

The Cougars are succeeding without a breakout star. Instead, guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver and forwards Robbie Cowgill, Ivory Clark and Harmeling have shared the spotlight. Freshman Nikola Koprivica and injured center Aron Baynes are also contributing. Clark is the only senior of the bunch.

"We've had different guys step up at different times," Bennett said Monday. "We have mostly sophomores and juniors, and they're kids who have taken their lumps and have some legitimate game experience with some heartbreaking losses and some bad losses."

North Carolina (14-1) replaced UCLA at No. 1 in both polls. In other poll developments, Washington (11-4) dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time this season, after losing to Arizona but beating Arizona State last week. The Huskies are ranked 24th in the coaches poll. Washington, which also lost to Gonzaga earlier, was 17th in the preseason poll and reached as high as No. 13, but is only 1-3 in the Pac-10.

Gonzaga (10-6), which had been ranked earlier this season, again did not draw any poll votes this week. But the Zags are the only team to have beaten North Carolina.

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The latest Rating Percentage Index, which ranks college basketball teams on schedule strength and other factors, had Washington State as the 24th best team in the nation, Gonzaga 39th, Washington 60th and Eastern Washington 197th.

The last time Washington State was ranked in the AP poll, George Raveling was the coach and Craig Ehlo and Guy Williams were the stars of a team that finished 23-7 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, Washington State has made one NCAA appearance, in 1994. It has not had a winning season since 1995-96.

Former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett came out of retirement four years ago to rebuild the Cougars. He brought them to respectability by installing a withering defensive game that kept superior athletes from running away with victories.

Bennett retired after last season and turned the reins over to his son, a 37-year old former college and NBA player.

"I'm sure the kids will enjoy this, but what I'm concerned with as a coach is where we're ranked at the end of the year," Tony Bennett said. "This indicates we have some quality wins that people recognized."

Washington State's win over Arizona was the biggest home victory since the Cougars upset No. 6 UCLA in 1983. That 1983 team spent one week on the poll in February before consecutive losses to UCLA and USC dropped them out of the Top 25 until now.

Washington State's only losses are at Utah (69-55) in the eighth game and at UCLA. Their victories came over Radford, Alabama-Birmingham, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Texas-San Antonio, Idaho State, Boise State, Portland, Gonzaga, Cal State-Northridge, San Diego State, USC, and the Arizona schools.

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