Preview: UA/Washington State

The Wildcats and Cougars are set to tango in a key Pac-10 match up Saturday night. Arizona will bring its high flying offense and 12-game winning streak into Pullman to face a Wazzu squad who is off to its best start in over 23 years.

Game 14: January 6, 2007

Washington State (13-2, 2-1 Pac-10) vs. Arizona (12-1, 3-0 Pac-10)

Arena: Beasley Coliseum

Capacity: 12,058

The Apple clearly did not fall far from the tree when it comes to the coaching styles of Dick Bennett and his son Tony. After his father's retirement from basketball last year, many questioned whether or not Tony could continue to win in Pullman. Some college basketball magazines such as Street & Smith's even went so far as to predict that Washington State would finish dead last in the Pac-10.

It's amazing what happens when teams actually play the games though as Tony has his Cougars growling even louder this season. On Saturday, they welcome in the Arizona Wildcats, winners of their last 12 games, who are coming off of an impressive road win against the Washington Huskies on Thursday.

This game will pit two very good teams with two very contrasting styles. Who will win? You might be surprised at how I think this one will turn out.

OFFENSE

Arizona continues to make things look easy on the offensive side of the ball. Their passing is some of the best I've ever seen and I'm not just talking about in the history of the school. At times, Arizona looks the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Nationals and I'm dead serious. That said, Saturday will be an unbelievable test against the defensive-minded Cougars. Questions that must be answered include how well Budinger reacts to the rigorous travel schedule it takes to get to Pullman, how well McClellan's legs hold up in playing in the Thursday/Saturday format, how well Shakur can dictate tempo, and whether or not Williams can continue to help out Radenovic by scoring inside the paint.

Washington State is patient on offense, but not as patient as they have been in the past. The one wrinkle Tony has instituted in taking over for his dad is that this Wazzu team will take the first available open shot while as Dick's teams would rarely shoot until at least 20 seconds ticked off the shot clock unless it was a lay up. Derrick Low is clearly the team's number one option and for good reason. He's shooting a lofty 50.9 percent from the field in averaging 15 points per game. The Cougars are fundamentally sound and have several players who are capable of having big offensive games if the Wildcats focus too much on Low, Kyle Weaver or Robbie Cowgill.

OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA

Arizona put on an impressive offensive display against the Huskies on Thursday, shooting an incredible 76 percent from the floor in the second half (65 percent for the game). On the same night, Wazzu allowed the Sun Devils to shoot 54.8 percent from the floor, although they routed ASU 75-55. On the surface, this looks like a lethal combination for Wazzu and good news for the Cats. Unfortunately, one has nothing to do with the other. Wazzu admittedly was a bit lackadaisical on defense against ASU and won't play that way again. Similarly, Arizona had some defensive breakdowns on Thursday night but that was mainly due to the equally impressive play of the Huskies. The bottom line is this: Man for man, Arizona has the more explosive offensive firepower. If they continue to create open shots by making the extra pass then they should be fine.

DEFENSE

Arizona's defense continues to get overlooked, or should I say overshadowed by their stellar offense. Sure, Arizona allowed Washington to shoot better than 53 percent from the field but anyone watching these two teams on Thursday for a moment may have thought they were watching a game between the 1984 Celtics and Lakers. With so many offensive weapons, it's easy to forget that 6'4" guard McClellan squared up and blocked 7'0" Spencer Hawes' shot, or that the Wildcats held the Huskies to no field goals in the game's final 4:35. Arizona has played a lot of zone defense this season, but it was their man-to-man that stifled the Huskies. Expect Arizona to go back to their zone against the Cougars and force Wazzu to make some deep shots.

For those who love to watch good team defense, then Wazzu is a team you should be watching every night. They rotate well, they help well, and when they want to (which is more often than not) they simply just get after it. That means diving for lose balls, flying out of bounds, taking charges and, well, you get the point. They've played a tough schedule so they'll be prepared for Arizona. They've beaten Gonzaga, San Diego State and USC and lost an extremely close game to UCLA 55-52 at Pauley. Still, the Wildcats will pose the biggest threat to the Cougars. If they can find a way to get a hand in McClellan's face and keep Budinger and Williams away from the basket they'll have a chance.

DEFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN

It would be easy to give Wazzu the edge here and leave it at that. I absolutely think they'll give the Wildcats fits all night in that Arizona will have to earn every basket they make. I'm calling this even though because I think that Wazzu will also struggle to score against a very underrated Arizona defense. Lute Olson actually commented after the Washington game that his team needed to learn how to play defense. Anytime a Coach calls out his players in the press you know he really doesn't mean it. What he is trying to do is get his Cats into the mind set that Wazzu's control game is much different than Washington's run and gun style. That being true, Arizona will be forced to play defense in the half court set and if they're not mentally prepared to do so, then it could be a long night.

REBOUNDING

Arizona has an opportunity to dominate on the boards against Wazzu in that for the first time in several games, it'll be the Wildcats who will be the team looking to attack the offensive boards, leaving the Cougars to fend off the aggressors. Unfortunately for Arizona since the Cougars play good team-oriented defense, they also rebound well because rarely is anyone out of position on the floor when a shot goes up. The good news is that Arizona is more athletic and will have lengthier players on the floor than Wazzu. Will that translate into more rebounds? Maybe a few, but not many.

Don't be fooled when you see that Wazzu only averages 29.6 rebounds per game. The reason is because games involving the Cougars result in far fewer offensive possessions than games involving up tempo teams such as Arizona. So, what happens when two teams with opposite styles face off? We'll find out Saturday as the team who can dictate the tempo will have a great chance of winning the game.

REBOUNDING EDGE: EVEN

No one on the Cougars is considered a dominate rebounder and that could spell trouble for Wazzu. The Wildcats feature two in Radenovic and the long-armed Williams. Arizona also usually gets solid production from backcourt mates Shakur and McClellan although both were quiet on the boards against the taller Huskies. Arizona will have to attack the offensive glass in order to increase their amount of possessions against Wazzu. Of course, if they shoot 65 percent from the field again rebounds won't really matter. Something tells me they won't shoot so well against the grittier Cougars so this facet of the game should be interesting to watch. My guess is both teams will rebound well enough to keep it close.

PLAYMAKING

In this article alone I've already referred to the Wildcats as the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lakers or Celtics (take your pick – although I prefer Larry Legend and the Celts). So, it's pretty obvious that I've been more than impressed with the Wildcats so far this season. Shakur continues to set the pace by handing out 7.9 assists per game. Against the Huskies, Arizona had 24 assists against 34 field goals. On one fast break, the ball touched three players' hands and only bounced once as Williams finished with a lay up. Now that's impressive. It'll take the same kind of effort, if not greater, against Wazzu to keep the Cougars off balance.

You hate to say that a team lacks a playmaker but Wazzu really does. Low is an excellent point guard but he's more of a throw his body into an opponent and try to draw the foul as opposed to a dribble between the legs and then wrap around pass to a teammate for a dunk kind of player. Weaver can create his own shot and I've seen more than a few tear drops fall for Cowgill but overall, if this team isn't scoring off backdoor cuts and high screens, then they will struggle from the field.

PLAYMAKING EDGE: ARIZONA

This is the one area of the game where Arizona can thrive. If they do, their playmaking ability will prove to be the difference. The negative is that the Wildcats may try to do too much and if they do could have a high turnover night. The positive is that if they do limit turnovers and use their usually crisp passing to free up their scorers they may, and I stress MAY, actually be able to pull away from the Cougars in the second half.

OVERALL

Possessions in this game will mean everything. They'll be at such a premium that every single offensive rebound will feel like two and every turnover will feel like three. Arizona cannot afford to have limited touches on offense. Even if they miss shots the important thing is to get as many attempts at the basket as possible.

I know this sounds a tad elementary but it's so true I can't simplify it enough. Turnovers allowed Washington State to creep back from a 10-point deficit to USC and beat the Trojans in L.A. and turnovers are what plagued Gonzaga who also lost to Wazzu.

If Arizona can limit its turnovers, they're a good enough team to get it done on the road against the Cougars.

For Wazzu, the task is not as simple. They may give Arizona some fits while on defense but I really think Arizona will make the Cougars struggle from the field when they have the ball. Expect to see Daniel Dillon play more minutes to try and hawk Low and Weaver, as well as to give McClellan some much needed rest. Plus, expect Arizona to fall back into their zone defenses and force the Cougars to make some outside shots.

Williams referred to the Washington trip as a "business trip." The late Saturday night start plays to Arizona's advantage in that the Wildcats can sleep in, get in a good shoot around and a couple of meals, and basically heal themselves before taking the court. The rest should serve them well and I think in the end it will indeed be all business for the Wildcats.

ARIZONA 71 WSU 58


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