WSU Cal Gueye tourney

WSU post Mouhamed Gueye attempts a shot against Cal on Jan. 11 at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.

Washington State caught fire late in the regular season and climbed up the Pac-12 standings, securing a favorable spot in the conference tournament.

The Cougars (16-15, 11-9 Pac-12), riding a six-game winning streak, will be the No. 5 seed at the Pac-12 tourney and open their stay in Las Vegas against bottom-seeded Cal (3-28, 2-18) at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.

WSU swept the series, blowing past the Golden Bears 66-51 on Jan. 11 in Pullman and winning a hard-fought game 63-57 on Feb. 25 in Berkeley. Cal has lost its last 15 games.

The winner of the WSU/Cal game advances to face fourth-seeded Oregon (18-13, 12-8) at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. It’s another winnable game for the Cougars, who split with the Ducks – losing 74-60 on Dec. 1 in Eugene and prevailing 68-65 on Feb. 19 in Pullman. If WSU wins its first two games in Vegas, the Cougars would likely run into top-seeded UCLA in the semifinal round.

But a win or two at the Pac-12 tourney could be enough for the Cougars to punch a ticket to the NIT for the second consecutive season.

The Barking Crow, a reputable source for NIT bracketology, has WSU in the field as a No. 4 seed in its latest tournament projections. The Cougars sit at No. 71 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

The NCAA tournament is off the table, unless WSU makes a miraculous run in Vegas and wins its first conference tournament title. It’s improbable, but not impossible.

WSU is the second-hottest team in the Pac-12 – behind fourth-ranked UCLA (27-4), which has won 10 games in a row – and the Cougars have proven they can compete with anyone. They stunned No. 8 Arizona in Tucson, went toe-to-toe with seventh-ranked Baylor and lost by one point to UCLA on Dec. 30 in a game that WSU led for over 35 minutes.

The Cougars saved their best basketball for late. WSU is coming off a rivalry win on the road, a 93-84 decision over Washington on Thursday in which the Cougars’ offense had its most productive showing of the season in Pac-12 play. Before that game, WSU’s defense held its last five opponents to an average of just 59.6 points per game.

WSU’s stars are playing at an elite level. Guard TJ Bamba is averaging 25.7 points per game and shooting 60.9% from the field over the past three games. The junior team captain erupted for a career-high 36 points Thursday against the Huskies. Mouhamed Gueye has established himself as one of the more talented posts in the nation. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is averaging 17.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and shooting 59.4% from the field during WSU’s six-game winning streak.

Colton Clark can be reached at