But when UCLA (6-3. 2-0) goes to Spokane today to face the Cougars (7-5, 1-1), they'll be confronted with something UCLA teams don't traditionally find against Washington State: a very well-coached team.
WSU won't be a pushover this year mainly because it's now being coached by Dick Bennett, one of the best coaches in the NCAA, according to many. Bennett owns a career .638 winning percentage, earning it at places like Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay. He did build a program at Wisconsin-Green Bay and then took Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000.
He might have been the perfect coach to take over the struggling Washington State program, being known as a builder of programs, and probably one of the coaches most capable of doing the most with very little.
Bennett does it with a certain style – a very deliberate, slow-paced offense and a tough, physical man-to-man defense and some full-court pressing. So far this season, Bennett has done everything you could expect from him, taking over a depleted Washington State team and leading them to a respectable start, including an upset win over Cal in Berkeley on Sunday, 55-50.
Perhaps, overall, the most challenging aspect of this game for UCLA will be facing such a well-coached team, and such a deliberate, slow-down style of offense. Bennett's team will use the entire shot clock, and wait for an opponent's defense to get impatient or lazy and try to exploit it. It can be effective against teams that lack discipline on defense.
UCLA, though, has proven this year that its defense isn't a fluke and can sustain effort and discipline. Shutting down Oregon for about about 17 minutes in the game last Sunday was what truly was enabled the Bruins to beat the Ducks. UCLA has shown that it could be capable of maintaining its focus and poise defensively against Bennett's Cougars.
Offensively, WSU really has one big scoring threat in point guard Marcus Moore. Moore, a long 6-6 athlete, is averaging 14 points a game, and usually scores through penetration or just because he's physically bigger than his defender. UCLA's Cedric Bozeman is the only point guard in the Pac-10, and perhaps the country, that can match up with Moore physically and defensively. It's a great matchup: a 6-6 great scorer against a 6-6 great on-the-ball defender. The offense definitely flows through Moore, and he'll either get points himself or by drawing defenses. With Bozeman, though, UCLA has the luxury of a player who can stay with Moore without the benefit of a double-team, limiting his ability to score himself or create for open teammates.
6-5 junior wing Thomas Kelati is WSU's next biggest scoring threat, averaging 10 points a game. For being pretty long, he isn't very aggressively offensively, and many times seems content shooting from the outside. He is probably WSU's best outside threat, leading the team in three-pointers made so far this year. WSU loves to clear out for Moore and allow him to create and then find open shooters, and his #1 option is usually Kelati.
6-4 sophomore guard Randy Green is the Cougar's other outside threat. He's fairly quick and can find room to create his own shot, and leads the team in three-point shooting percentage, while averaging 7 points a game. On any other team, one that doesn't milk the clock like WSU, Green would be a double-digit scorer. Green started a few games, but has come off the bench recently to give the Cougars some bench scoring.
Two forwards, 6-7 junior Shami Gill and 6-6 junior Chris Schlatter, start and play the most minutes in WSU's frontcourt. Neither are very big scoring threats, with both primarily used as the screen-setters in Bennett's deliberate offense. Gill, who is probably 235 pounds, is the true baseline player while Schlatter will step out to shoot on occasion. JC transfer Jeff Varem, a 6-6 junior who just became eligible four games ago, is one to watch. Against Cal on Sunday he had what you might call a breakout game, playing 26 minutes and scoring 15 points. He plays inside mostly, and is strong and well-built at probably 230 pounds. He could step up and give WSU some of the inside scoring presence they could use. He also played very good defense against Cal, being instrumental in holding Cal's phenom freshman forward, Leon Powe, to just 2 points on Sunday.
The fifth starting spot has been filled by Green, as well as 6-5 guard Anthony Grant, or even 6-9 senior Justin Bellegarde, depending on Bennett's whims. Grant is a pretty good athlete who plays solid defense and Bellegarde doesn't get many minutes, just used as a big body. Ezenwa Ukeagu, a 6-7 senior who also brings 250+ pounds, provides some more muscle. 6-1 freshman guard T.J. Patrick provides some relief for the backcourt off the bench, and has a good shooting eye.
Since Washington State tends to run down the shot clock on offense and doesn't exactly have great scorers to put the ball in the basket, often times Moore or someone else is forced to take a bad shot with the clock running out. It's caused WSU to shoot just 40% from the field for the season, and just 31% from three.
Defensively, it's going to be a different ballgame than the Oregon game. Bennett has this WSU team playing tight, energetic defense. It was instrumental in its win over Cal, forcing the Bears into key turnovers. With some pretty tough guys inside, Washington State likes to deny inside touches, and throws a lot of double-teams at you when an opponent does get the ball down low. It's key that UCLA has to have a good shooting night from outside, but also open up outside shooting looks by trying to get the ball down low.
UCLA, overall, matches up well individually against Washington State at every position. If it can sustain energy on defense and stay focused against Bennett's stall offense, and then also run its own offense efficiently, its athleticism alone should be good enough to get UCLA an advantage on the boards and on the scoreboard. Playing in Spokane instead of Pullman might be a disadvantage for UCLA, since more fans will show up at the Spokane Arena than they would with school out in Pullman. Because of pretty bad weather in the Northwest, the Bruins had to reschedule its flights to Spokane, which could cause them to be more fatigued for the game. Being on the road, and being without its best shooter, Brian Morrison, is good for shaving off at least 5-8 points from UCLA's offense. With both teams playing good defense, it should be a fairly ugly, low-scoring game offensively.