Washington State, (10-9, 3-7 in the PAC-10) is coming off a huge win this past Saturday over Washington. It was the first series sweep of the Huskies by the Cougars since 1993-1994. The win ended a six game conference losing streak for WSU and propelled them into their game Thursday against the Bruins. To make matters even better for the Cougars, starting point guard Derrick Low, (6'1" 186 lb.), who has been out since before the meeting between the Cougars and Bruins in Los Angeles, is slated for a possible return on Thursday. When Low went down with a foot injury he was playing the best ball of any of the Cougars.
The Bruins are coming into this game a bit banged up. Actually, it's really only point guard Jordan Farmar who is banged up. In the second half of the win against Arizona on Saturday, Farmar rolled his left ankle. This is NOT the same ankle he had problems with in the first half of the season. That is good news, I guess, although I have had many ankle sprains in the past and found that when I freshly sprained my "healthy" ankle, it took a while to come back because the ligaments weren't used to being stretched. As was reported yesterday, Farmar has been in a walking boot and unable to practice yet this week and Coach Howland stated at his Tuesday presser that he was HOPING that Farmar would be able to shoot on Wednesday in order to be ready for Thursday. While Howland seemed pretty confident in Farmar's ability to play in the game on Thursday, he is still a game-time decision.
So, both teams may be playing with point guards who are either hobbled, (Farmar) or rusty, (Low) or even both. The fact that Farmar will be less than 100% for the game is crucial because of the way he has been coming on lately. As well as Arron Afflalo played in the second half of the ASU game and then how he played against the Wildcats; Farmar was still the engine that drove the Bruins to the victories. Others will have to pick up the slack, notably Darren Collison, and with that, let's look at the individual match-ups.
The Cougars start three guards and two undersized, (either height or weight) forwards, but they know how to play in Dick Bennett's system. The key for WSU over the past four weeks has been the play of starting off-guard, Josh Akognon, (5'10" 198 lbs.). Akognon is a quick player but is a shooter first and foremost. He is the type of shooter that when he gets hot his shots will start falling from every conceivable angle. The best example of this was his second half performance against the Bruins at Pauley when he finished the game with 25 points on 6-8 shooting from behind the arc and scored all of his points in the second half. He is a difficult defensive match-up because you would expect a player of his size to be jitterbug quick and want to get to the hoop. Akognon is quick and will drive but he runs off screens to get open looks from behind the arc. The key with Akognon, who is the Cougars' leading scorer at 11.4 PPG, is to fight through screens and hedge well because he really doesn't create his own shot. More than likely Afflalo will be matched up on Akognon, along with Collison from time to time. Afflalo will have to use his strength and size to keep Akognon from getting hot. Collison will have to use his speed and quickness. Either way it will be a tough match-up for the Bruins. Akognon scored only 14 against the Huskies on Saturday but was key in the victory if, for nothing else than he forced the Huskies to shadow him which allowed his teammates to free up for better offensive opportunities.
The second of the three guard rotation of starters is sophomore Kyle Weaver, (6'5" 185 lbs.), who is probably the most talented guard on the squad. In the first meeting with the Bruins he had 9 points and several key rebounds, but the moment for Weaver in that game was the missed lay-up at the end that could have sent the game into overtime. Weaver shoots 49% from the floor, but only 35% from behind the arc. He will penetrate and is long and lanky, so he actually plays bigger than his height. Cedric Bozeman and Mike Roll will probably get the task of taking on Weaver. Roll did a nice job on Weaver in the first game, (with help from Luc Mbah a Moute), and Roll in combination with Bozeman should be able to use their size and strength advantage to maximum effect. After talking about his lack of quickness for a while now, Roll has proven his doubters wrong as he has become one of the steadiest defenders on the team. Whoever guards him will have to keep him off the boards, though as Weaver leads the Cougars with almost 5 RPG.
The third guard will either be Low or freshman Chris Matthews, (6'3" 198 lbs.), who started his first game on Saturday against Washington. Regardless of which of these two players start, it's likely that Farmar will end up guarding him. Farmar will have to keep either from penetrating, as will Collison, especially Matthews as he has proven to be an abysmal outside shooter, (less than 30% from the floor). Low is a much better shooter but he will look to drive first and foremost. There is a reason that several preseason publications said that Low's not the type of player you can build an offense around. In short, he's not a scorer or a player with that kind of mentality.
Bennett probably started Matthews to go short and quick against a small and quick Washington team. He may elect to start junior Ivory Clark, (6'5" 212 lbs.), who can rebound very well for his size. Or Bennett could go big with sophomore Chris Henry, (6'8" 257 lbs.), which would give the Cougars two very big men up front. Finally, Bennett could go with the team's lone senior, Randy Green, (6'3" 190 lbs.). The bottom line is that Bennett has options and he will utilize them. The bet is that Bennett will start Low if he can, then either Matthews or Green seeing that Clark is one of the few options that Bennett has off the bench in the frontcourt.
The two post starters are a given. Sophomore Robbie Cowgill, (6'10" 207 lbs.), and freshman Aron Baynes, (6'10 247 lbs.), both had good games against the Huskies. Baynes had a career day, scoring 13 points and pulling down 12 boards while completely outplaying heralded frosh Jon Brockman of Washington. Cowgill, who is certainly the most gifted big man, if not player on Washington State, finished with 10 points and 4 boards, which are right around his averages. But Cowgill is a very good passer out of the post and that will be difficult to defend. In the first match-up between these two teams a month ago, the Bruins basically eliminated the Cougar frontcourt early on. They will want to play better this time around and have a great deal of confidence after the Washington win. But they are facing a Bruin team that simply is a difficult match-up for the Cougars down low. Ryan Hollins has been a force, at least defensively, (not counting part of the Arizona game), since he returned from injury. His strength, length and quickness will cause the slow-footed Baynes some real problems on both ends of the floor. Luc will be a match-up nightmare for Cowgill. Luc is much more athletic, rebounds better and more physically, and is very astute in his own right. Cowgill, while not taking a lot of 3's, still would rather face the basket. He will beat Luc on some post moves, but the real question is how Cowgill plays defense on Luc.
Much has been made of the Cougars' style of play under Bennett. They have the best statistical defense in the conference, but they do like to slow the ball down, thus keeping scores lower. However, this is the most athletic and skilled, albeit young, Cougar team of Bennett's tenure. They run a little more and use the clock a bit less. The Bruins, however, play the same kind of lock down defense, but have a much better offense. The bruins are playing on the road, which should help the Cougars, but the Bruins are undefeated on the road in the PAC-10 this year, and Eugene and Tucson are much harder places to win than Pullman. The Bruins only won the first meeting at Pauley by 2, but they so thoroughly dominated the 1st half that the brilliant play of the Cougars particularly Akognon, couldn't bring them all the way back. The Bruins were a much more banged up team then, excepting Farmar, of course, who is now about the same, but they also didn't know their roles yet. It seems that is no longer an issue. Bottom line is that the Bruins are on a roll and I don't think that Friel or WSU is going to stop them. And you know what? This may be the tougher of the two games in Washington. We'll see. But for now-
Washington State 61