WSU Preview

It's the biggest game of the season so far when #4 Washington State and #5 UCLA square off in Pauley Pavilion Saturday. It's two very good, well-coached teams, and the outcome of the game could be huge in deciding the Pac-10 championship...

UCLA hosts the Washington State Cougars on Saturday in what is the biggest game of the early Pac-10 schedule. In terms of national exposure, it doesn't get any bigger or more important than this game. Washington State comes into Pauley Pavilion undefeated and ranked #4 in the country while the Bruins enter the contest with only one loss and the country's #5 ranking. Both teams are coming off fairly pedestrian performances, with UCLA defeating Washington in a game that was essentially over by halftime and Wazzu besting USC in a game that saw the Cougars simply take advantage of the many mistakes that the Trojans committed during the game. This is clearly the biggest game on this weekend's college basketball landscape and I would say, based on Thursday's performances, that both teams were coming into the game rested and ready.

UCLA, however, suffered two injuries Thursday which could make a significant difference in the outcome: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute suffered a knee bruise and, more importantly, Darren Collison suffered what appears to be a hip pointer. Mbah a Moute should be good to go, but Collison remains a question mark. So, this game's question for the Bruins isn't about effort or intensity or even about the team. The question is pretty straightforward: Will Collison play?

In Howland's teleconference today he said he didn't know the status of Collison or Mbah a Moute and wouldn't know until this afternoon's practice.

Typically these previews delve into the personnel match-ups of the two teams involved, and while the personnel match-up here are important, the overriding factor in this game is playing style. The Cougars present a unique challenge because of their methodical offense and stifling man defense. Wazzu presents an even more difficult challenge because they are one of the few major college teams that run the offensive system they do. Most teams run some variation of a motion, a flex or a triangle offense. Most teams do have set plays in their repertoire, but they are sets that come out of one of those base types of offenses. As a result, coaches prepare their teams to defend those types of offenses. That leaves little time to prepare for something specific as the Washington State offense. It's like a football team that has defended pro sets and spreads suddenly having to defend a wishbone attack. The final piece that makes the Wazzu offense so difficult is that the Cougars use much of the shot clock on every half-court possession. Since Coach Tony Bennett took over for his father, Dick, last year, the Cougars have been a bit more up-tempo, but that's all relative. Most teams in the country don't have the concentration or the patience to defend this system for 40 minutes. Under Ben Howland the Bruins are one of the few teams who can and have. That would explain why UCLA hasn't lost to Wazzu in the last two seasons.

The Cougars aren't all about offense. They play a very disciplined man defense that routinely takes away your first two options on offense. They are one of the best teams in the country at help-side defense and at situational rotations. Against USC last night, the Trojans continually got frustrated when they had to go six, seven and even eight passes into their offense. It led to bad shots and turnovers, which is typical fare for the Wazzu defense. Only a disciplined offensive team that moves the ball well will have much success against the Cougars. Athleticism doesn't matter all that much against the Cougars as their defensive system tends to nullify their usual disadvantage athletically.

For the last two seasons UCLA was able to beat the Cougars in some close games because the Bruins were able to execute offensively and, more importantly, they played the same style of defense that Washington State does, only better. It is this area where athleticism does play a role. Last night USC had a significant athletic advantage but because they are still learning what it means to play tight man defense, their athletic advantage never really came into play when they were on the defensive end. On the other hand, the Bruins have played the Cougars to a draw system-wise, so the advantage was with the team that had better athletes and more talent. The same issue will come up in this contest. If the Bruins are healthy then the advantage would clearly be with them. But with the questionable status of Collison, that advantage may be completely nullified.

The key to stopping Washington State's offense is stopping the dribble penetration of their guards. Wazzu is an excellent passing team with very good vision. Even their big men know how to get the ball into excellent scoring positions. Very often they are able to get good shots because of their guards' ability to get into the lane and their uncanny ability to find exactly the teammate they should for a high-percentage look. With Collison healthy, the Bruins stand a good chance of being able to keep the Cougar guards out of the lane for a good portion of the game. Without Collison, or with a gimpy Collison, the Bruins will have to rely on Josh Shipp and/or Chace Stanback and Mustafa Abdul Hamid to try and stop the Cougars backcourt.

Bennett has one of the best backcourts in the nation. They don't "wow" you with their athleticism, but they are among the smartest tandems of guards you will see this season. It all starts with senior Derrick Low (6'2" 196 lbs.), who is one of the headiest players in the Pac-10. He leads the Cougars in scoring at 12.7 PPG and he is their best three-point shooter, even though his stats don't completely reflect that. He is deceptively quick, but what sets him apart is his ability to know how to use every screen set for him. Combine this with his excellent decision-making and his unselfishness (he doesn't force shots, but rather looks for the best shot for the team. If it's his, so be it). He is a very strong leader, which isn't surprising since he has started almost every game since his freshman year. He was moved to the ‘2' guard many times last season, however this season Bennett has had him play the off-guard spot almost exclusively. That's because Bennett has a point guard that allows him the luxury of moving Low over.

Junior Taylor Rochestie (6'1" 186 lbs.) has assumed the starting point guard position this season. Like Low, he is deceptively quick and has generally been very difficult to keep out of the lane. He averages 9.1 PPG, hits 49% of his three-point shots, has 69 assists versus only 29 turnovers and even averages 3.2 RPG. Rochestie's defense is as good as his teammates, and he is especially adept at fighting through screens. Rochestie's basketball I.Q. is outstanding and he knows his role. If the Bruins were healthy, Coach Ben Howland would have Collison guard Rochestie, but without Collison, the Bruins are in a real quandary. Russell Westbrook would be a natural fit defensively to guard Low as Westbrook is excellent at fighting around screens and has the length to really bother Low. But if Collison is out then Westbrook would have to guard Rochestie, meaning that Josh Shipp would be on Low. If that happens then Wazzu has a distinct advantage unless Shipp improves his defense very quickly.

Off the bench the Cougars have more depth than the Bruins because the one backcourt sub, sophomore Nikola Koprivica (6'6" 211 lbs.), is used to playing the ‘2'. At the very least, Wazzu has a player that is their version of Shipp, without the scoring but with a better understanding of the position. Koprivica's stats aren't very good, but he knows his role and he plays it well. He will get about 12-13 minutes per game and uses those minutes to be a defensive force. He has the reputation of a shooter, but he's only 2-20 for the season from behind the arc.

Up front, Kevin Love will have to exhibit the kind of patience that hasn't been asked of him yet this season. It's not patience when he gets the ball, but rather patience to play the game knowing he will go multiple possessions in a row without seeing the ball. This will be an entirely new experience for Love as he will be playing more against a system rather than against a player or players. The good news for the Bruins is that when Love does get the ball in the low post, he should be able to do some damage, whether by scoring or passing out of the inevitable double and even triple teams. Also, Love is so good at drawing fouls that he could really cause a personnel headache for Bennett. Junior Aron Baynes (6'10" 270 lbs.) is the only real big man that Bennett has on the roster. Senior Robbie Cowgill (6'10" 211 lbs.) has the height but not the bulk and Love would overwhelm him with his offense. Freshman Fabian Boeke (6'11" 230 lbs.) just doesn't see the floor. Losing Baynes would cripple Washington State's defense. Expect the Bruins and Howland to notice that and try to make it a reality.

Offensively, Baynes is the second-leading scorer on the team at 12.1 PPG. He also leads the team with 6.6 RPG. He isn't very athletic but he knows how to use his body on both ends of the floor and he has good enough hands that he can make a team pay for trying to double one of the guards. Cowgill is the do-everything post. He is a very good passer, a better than average shooter (shooting a team-high 65% for the season), and can rebound well despite his slight frame. He's been through the Pac-10 grind for three full seasons and, like Low and fellow senior Kyle Weaver (6'6" 201 lbs.), will not be phased by playing on Wooden Court.

For all the talk of the guards and Baynes, the most indispensible player on Washington State is probably Weaver. He is a special player, one that knows he's the most gifted player on the team but subverts his statistics for the good of the program. Weaver is very good at every aspect of the game. He can lead the team in scoring (he averages 11.4 PPG), or rebounding (4.6 RPG), or assists (he has 59 on the season). He has a very high basketball I.Q., knows where to be on the floor on both ends and knows where his teammates are going to be in virtually any given situation. He is also the best defender on the team and you can expect him to take Josh Shipp out of his comfort zone. Weaver made it very difficult on Arron Afflalo the past two seasons and there is no reason to expect he won't do the same to Shipp. That makes it even more important that Collison can play at an effective level as he will probably have to score some to make up for the fact that Weaver has Shipp somewhat under wraps.

Bennett has the luxury of bringing junior Daven Harmeling (6'7" 216 lbs.) off the bench for offense, especially from long range, or junior Caleb Forrest (6'8" 228 lbs.) for defense and rebounding. Forrest can also score a little in the paint if you don't pay attention to him. Harmeling is also a smart player (aren't all the Cougars?), but he really is an all or nothing player off the bench. He can be the leading scorer for the team in games, like he was against USC, because most of his shots are falling, but he can also be ice-cold.

As I stated before, Washington State is a team that is much greater in sum than with its individual parts. The game is truly going to be a chess match between Howland and Bennett. For those that enjoy watching coaches who are very good at their craft, this game is a wonderful match-up.

Washington State is going to try and control the tempo and keep the game in the 50s or low 60s. They are usually successful at dictating pace and this game should be no different, especially if Collison can't go. That means possessions are going to be at a premium as the Bruins will have less of them over the course of the game.

In terms of statistics, turnovers and rebounding are going to be the keys to the game. If the Bruins can keep their turnovers down then they will be less apt to get frustrated, as the Trojans did last night. That means more effective and patient offensive possessions. It will also mean that the Bruins will be less apt to take unreasonable risks on defense just to jumpstart their offense.

It's a difficult game to predict without knowing if Collison is playing. If he is ready to go, then the Bruins, playing at home, have an advantage. The Bruins are a more balanced offensive team then they have been in the past few seasons, which will make it hard for Washington State to cover all aspects of the Bruin offense. I will assume that Collison is playing, but if he isn't, then all bets are off.

UCLA 64
Washington State 57


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