They're 9-9 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-10, and that doesn't come close to doing them justice. Three of their five Pac-10 losses came on the road, against Washington, Arizona State and UCLA, and they easily could have beaten both the Sun Devils and the Bruins. But they also beat USC on the road, 69-52, and then just last Saturday beat Arizona, 70-63, in Tucson. It was the first time WSU had beaten Arizona in 19 years, ending a 38-game losing streak.
And it wasn't a fluke. Yes, Arizona didn't play well, but Washington State is a team that, with the degree of talent it has and its playing style, can beat just about anyone on any given night.
Dick Bennett's, WSU's coach, is labeled with running a slow-down, mind-numbing game, but that's not really accurate. It's a style that, first and foremost, emphasizes a tough, persistent and physical defense, one that gets back quickly and doesn't allow opponents any easy transition baskets. It then combines that with a very patient and disciplined offense. That does tend to slow down the game a little and limit scoring, but it's a sound approach, especially on the defensive side.
Washington State has been able to upset better opponents because its defense simply can keep it any games. If your defense can keep you in a game, when you play against a superior opponent and they have an off night, while you happen to hit some big shots, you're going to beat them.
Washington State's defense leads the Pac-10 in the least amount of points allowed per game (59.9), as well as field goal percentage defense, allowing just 39%, and is second in three-point percentage defense at 31%. They not only do it as a result of persistence and hard work, but they play tough and physically.
But as we stated, to beat the Arizonas of the world, it also helps when you hit some big shots, which the Cougars did last Saturday. And it was mainly one guy hitting all the big shots.
Thomas Kelati, the 6-5 senior wing, as we said at the beginning of the season, is one of the best players in the conference. Last Saturday against Arizona he had one of the best games this year in the conference, scoring 27 points and a career-high seven three-pointers to beat the Wildcats. Just like he did against UCLA in its first game at Pauley, Kelati hit some big, clutch threes at the end of the game. He's long, quick and skilled and very hard to limit for 40 minutes.
Kelati and 6-6 strong senior forwarf Jeff Varem present some considerable matchup problems for the Bruins. You felt that UCLA did relatively well in limiting Varem in the teams' first game, and Varem got 17 points and 15 rebounds. There is simply no one on the UCLA team that can guard him, being either too quick for UCLA's 6-11 posts or too strong for its 6-7 power forward, Dijon Thompson. Varem could see some double teams, and UCLA could also experiment with Matt McKinney against him. McKinney might offer the best combination of strength and quickness in staying with Varem.
Opponents know about limiting Kelati and Varem, so it seems like Washington State's offense also depends on others stepping up. When freshman point guard Derrick Low has given the Cougars a good shooting effort, they've won or been close to winning in every game. He tends to get open since opponents are spending so much energy guarding Kelati and Varem.
One guy that also gave UCLA fits in its first meeting was 6-4 freshman wing Kyle Weaver. He was just too quick and athletic for UCLA's perimeter players to stay in front of and contain. Lately, though, Weaver hasn't been playing as well and has been getting less minutes.
It's a hugely critical game for UCLA. If UCLA loses to Washington State, they very likely would be looking at getting swept on their Washington swing this weekend, facing #13 Washington in Seattle on Saturday, where the Huskies are 11-0 for the season. Getting swept this weekend would put UCLA at 11-8 and 5-6 in the Pac-10, which would make them a considerably longer-shot in terms of NCAA tournament bids. If they can get at least a split this weekend, they'd be 12-7 and 6-5, with only one more Pac-10 road weekend on the schedule. Obviously their best chance of accomplishing that split is beating Washington State tonight.
It's fortunate that UCLA faces Washington State first this weekend. Since it really is such a pivotal game, it provided them the beginning of the week to prepare for the Cougars, they'll be better rested, and the team won't have to deal with any fallout emotional state after playing Washington.
While it's usually tough for opponents to play WSU in Pullman, the Cougars haven't really been any tougher at home than on the road this season. And UCLA's freshmen haven't tended to be rattled by opposing venues or crowds. UCLA will need to avoid the early-game somnabulism that it's experienced many times this year, showing that it's been far less likely to come back from those big, early deficits on the road than it has at home. The biggest indicator will be UCLA's early attention to defense. If it comes out playing tough defensively, you can expect the Bruins to be in the game. If not, and Washington State builds any kind of considerable lead, expecting UCLA to mount one of its dramatic come-from-behind victories against Washington State again – this time in Pullman – is probably expecting too much.