First of all, UCLA will seek to defend both its regular season and conference tournament titles. The Bruins will also be looking to defend its #1 ranking in all of the major polls. Finally, the Bruins will look to win every game with a sizeable bulls-eye on their backs…something they really didn't have to deal with last season, certainly not at this level.
Enter the Washington State Cougars. Wazzu enters the PAC-10 season on a tear of its own, with a record of 11-1, including a pretty convincing win over Gonzaga. The record marks the best start of a season for the Cougars in 25 years. Much of the credit for this start can go to two key areas. First is first-year Head Coach Tony Bennett, the son of the previous head coach, Dick Bennett. In a season that has seen, at least until now, the offspring of successful coaches take over and thrive (Sean Sutton at Oklahoma State), Bennett has not been the exception to the rule. He continues his father's legacy of emphasizing solid half court man-to-man defense, but he has kicked the offense up a notch…okay, 10 notches. The second key area is experience. Wazzu plays four players in very key roles, and all of these players have been in the program for 2+ seasons. That has allowed the newer players to find their niches and roles without pressure.
So, in comes a good Cougar team to Pauley Pavilion Thursday with solid players, two of whom are having all-conference years up until now, a good, young and vibrant head coach who really knows what he's doing and serious momentum. Keeping all that in mind, remember this: UCLA will beat Washington State, and while it won't be "Michigan"-comfortable, the win will not cause Bruin fans or Coach Ben Howland to sweat much. The bottom line is that UCLA is (sorry Greg Hicks, I have to lift this from you) a match-up nightmare for Wazzu, both in terms of personnel and schemes.
There are three starters, juniors Derrick Low (6'2" 186 lbs.), Kyle Weaver (6'6" 201 lbs.), and Robbie Cowgill (6'10" 211 lbs.), and one bench player, senior Ivory Clark (6'6" 220 lbs.), who see big minutes for Coach Bennett. The first three Cougars have started every game, while Clark has started 8, but Bennett has made no secret of his belief that Clark is better as the sixth man, and has used him as such in the last four games as the younger Cougars have become more ready to assume more minutes.
Low is the leading scorer for the Cougars at 15.5 PPG. In one of the most visionary moves of the off-season, Bennett moved Low, who was one of the best returning point guards in the PAC-10, over to the shooting guard spot. Low, who is the biggest shooting threat for Wazzu, averaging 44% from behind the arc, is the type of player that can create his own shot. Low isn't super-quick, but he is quick enough to beat most defenders into the lane, where he has become proficient at pull-up jumpers from 10-12 feet. The best thing about Low is that he gives the Cougars a second point guard on the floor, one who knows how to pass and who understands the offense. Finally, Low is Washington State's career leader in free-throw percentage at 83% for his career, and is actually "low" (no pun intended) right now at 82% for the season. Low's stats are a bit misleading, though. He was lighting it up at the beginning of the season, but as teams have begun to really scout Wazzu, they have begun to make life more difficult for Low on the offensive end. As such, his production and shooting percentage have gone down. At one point this season, Low was averaging close to 20 PPG.
Weaver is probably the Cougars' best all around player. He is second on the team in scoring at 10.4 PPG, and while Low's production has tailed off a bit, Weaver's has increased. In his last game against San Diego State, Weaver scored 16 points, all in the second half, which actually illustrates the one big thing wrong with Weaver's game: He isn't anywhere near aggressive enough. Weaver has a tendency to let the game come to him too much. And it doesn't help that in this version of the "Bennett" offense, Weaver is asked to be an assist man as much as he is asked to score. He leads the team in assists at 3.8 APG, although the past 5 games that average is closer to 7 as Bennett has changed the line-up around. Weaver is also 3rd on the team in rebounding at 4.6 RPG. Other than his aggressiveness, the area of his game that Weaver needs work on is his three-point shooting, where he is averaging only 23% from behind the arc. Weaver has only taken 13 threes all season, and would much rather get into the lane and either shoot or dish. Weaver has developed a nice pull-up jumper, too. But the best part of Weaver's game is his defense. He, like the man he'll guard, Arron Afflalo, is the team's designated stopper, and he does it very well. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that this will be the toughest match-up Afflalo will have faced on the offensive end up to this point this season. Weaver is a long athlete who is quick enough to cause virtually anyone he guards problems, and he is pretty athletic, leading the Cougars with 16 blocks on the season.
Cowgill still has yet to live up to the billing he had coming out of high school. He is a nice complimentary player, but those who have seen him more than a few times recognize that he has a very good skill set and wonder why he isn't more of a dominant player for his team. Now, that's not to say that he should average 16 and 8, but he should be better than his 7 PPG and 5.3 RPG. The thing with Cowgill is he will give you effort every game. That's why he averages 24 MPG (including the blow out wins). Cowgill is a fine passer of the ball and understands the game well. He doesn't have many assists, but he usually makes the pass that sets up the man who makes the assist. He has a very good working relationship with Weaver, which is probably part of the reason why Weaver leads the team in assists. The thing with Cowgill is that he has the body of a ‘3', but he wants to play like a ‘5'. That bodes well for Lorenzo Mata. Mata has had trouble guarding posts who like to drift outside, and if Cowgill does decide to move off the low post, then Howland can always bring in Alfred Aboya or Ryan Wright or James Keefe, but that would require Cowgill playing in a somewhat different role than he has up to this point. Cowgill will have trouble keeping Mata, et al, off the boards on the offensive end. Clark may come off the bench, but he typically sees starter's minutes. He is averaging 9.4 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding at 5 RPG. Clark is strictly a low post player on both ends of the floor. He doesn't shoot well from outside of 8 feet (being 0-8 on threes this season), and makes his living by being the banger from among Bennett's top four players. This is another match-up that bodes well for the Bruins, as Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has a decisive quickness advantage over Clark, not to mention he is stronger and more athletic than Clark. Clark does play with a warrior mentality, though, so Luc will need to bring his ‘A' game or Clark will have an advantage on him.
In terms of the other players, Bennett has played those that have given him the best chance to win on a given night. Over the last five games, Bennett has started sophomore Daven Harmeling ( 6'7" 216 lbs.) as the other forward in place of Clark. Harmeling hasn't disappointed, going off for 20 in the big win against Gonzaga. Harmeling has taken more than half his shots from behind the arc where he averages 37%. He averages only 2.9 RPG, but much of that can be attributed to the fact that early on in the season his minutes were at a premium. When he is in the game and Clark isn't, he will give Luc more of a match-up problem simply because he'll take Luc away from the basket. If the Cougars decide to go "big", then Josh Shipp will have the task of guarding Harmeling. That is a good match-up for the Bruins as Harmeling doesn't like to put the ball on the floor, so like last weekend with Ron Coleman of Michigan, Shipp won't have to worry too much about Harmeling driving to the hoop.
At the beginning of the year, Bennett started sophomore Mac Hopson (6'2" 178 lbs.) at the point with the idea that this would give Low more chances to score from the ‘2' spot. However, as the season has progresses, Hopson has seen fewer minutes. He has a nice 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but he hasn't been running the offense the way Bennett would like. Again, it was a matter of other teams simply scouting out what Hopson could do and what his weaknesses are. Another possibility at the point is sophomore Taylor Rochestie (6'1" 186 lbs.). Rochestie is a player in the mold of Hopson, just not quite as good at running the offense yet. Rochestie does have the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the squad, but he only plays about 11+ MPG. Much of that is because he isn't a great offensive threat. In the post, Bennett could start sophomore Aron Baynes (6'10" 270 lbs.), who gives the Cougars a true low-post scoring threat and he is averaging close to 8 rebounds per 40 minutes. The problem has been that Baynes, who isn't very fast or quick to begin with, is coming off of a serious ankle injury that kept him sidelined for much of last season. Bennett said as late as last week that Baynes isn't 100% and Bennett could keep him out of this game. Sophomore guard Chris Matthews (6'4" 207 lbs.) will also see action, givingWeaver and, to a lesser extent, Harmeling a breather.
As I said, Bennett tends to go with the lineup that he feels gives the Cougars the best chance to win. In the beginning of the season that meant going with a smaller, 3-guard lineup with Hopson starting. As the season has progressed, Bennett has gone back to a more conventional line-up with Baynes starting, when he has been available. Either way, the match-up with the Bruins doesn't bode well for the Cougars. If Bennett goes small, that allows Arron Afflalo to guard Low and possibly take Wazzu's leading scorer out of the game. It also means that Hopson would have to deal with Darren Collison's defensive pressure, something that Hopson isn't used to facing. If Wazzu goes big, then Bennett has put a team on the floor that is more to the liking of Lorenzo Mata, and one that is slower and doesn't pass the ball or handle it as well. It also forces Bennett to move Low back to the point and then it becomes a question as to where Wazzu is going to get its scoring from.
In the past, Wazzu has been able to stay in games because of its defense and its methodical motion offense. The defense is still the same stingy, hard-working unit that fans are used to under a Bennett. But the offense, while it has been better for Wazzu this season, will make it more likely that they will suffer a bigger defeat at the hands of the Bruins. Under Dick Bennett, the Cougars didn't look to shoot until the shot clock went under 20 seconds, and even then it had to be a "good" shot. Under Tony Bennett, the Cougars are looking to take the first "good" shot, no matter when in the shot clock it comes. Don't be surprised to see Wazzu have offensive possessions that last less than 20 seconds. This means the Bruins will have more opportunities to score themselves, and there is a strong likelihood that the Bruins will be able to get some baskets in transition off turnovers, etc.
This is definitely a better Washington State team than fans are used to seeing. They will certainly be much better next season. Bennett is a smart coach and should be given a great deal of credit for the start that the Cougars have had. But Wazzu comes up short in virtually every aspect of this game compared to UCLA, and that includes on the sidelines. In fact, the Cougars probably don't have one player that would see serious minutes if they were on UCLA's roster. Now, a good team clearly outplays and can beat a team of individuals (just ask Michigan), but when the team of better players/athletes also plays unselfishly and as a cohesive unit, then the underdog team rarely keeps it close (just ask the Bruins after the title game last year). Plus, this game is only the second true road game for the Cougars, and they lost the other one to Utah pretty badly. This is a situation where things don't look good for the Cougars and the Bruins look to start out the conference season with an emphatic win.
Washington State 57