UCLA chartered a plane for the trip, like they did last season, but hopefully they won't need an emergency landing like they did a year ago.
The Cougars are 11-6 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-10, with the two conference losses coming at home to Cal and Washington. They just came off a weekend road trip where they collected two wins in the state of Oregon, beating Oregon pretty easily and having to go to overtime to beat Oregon State.
It's a different season for the Cougars compared to the last two, when they were considered one of the top three or so teams in the conference. Last year at this time, actually, the Cougars were undefeated (14-0) and ranked #4 in the country. Then the Bruins burst the Cougar bubble a bit at Pauley, and WSU then went 8-7 the rest of the way in the Pac-10. That included another loss to the Bruins in Pullman.
In fact, for all of the hype about Washington State being such a tough game in Pullman, UCLA has done very well there. The Bruins have won 15 in a row at WSU, going back to 1993. During the last two seasons, under Tony Bennett, when the Cougars had their best teams in a very long time, UCLA beat them fairly easily in Pullman.
But we have to, again, say that the Cougars are going to be tough Thursday night. Their style of play usually dictates that, even if a team is considerably better and more talented, they won't be blown out.
WSU fans, too, think the Cougars are starting to show development. At least, last weekend.
The team is led by senior point guard Taylor Rochestie (6-0, 190), who has taken over the leadership mantle after the departure of veterans Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Rochestie leads the team in scoring (12.7) and assists (4.6), which is a sign (like with UCLA's Darren Collison) of a player who's creating scoring for himself and for others. Rochestie isn't really quick, but he's clever and a good ballhandler, which allows him to get into the lane more than you would expect. A lefty, he also can get very hot from outside, like he did in WSU's last outing against Oregon when he went off for 30 points, on 4-of-7 three-pointers. So far in WSU's five conference games he's really asserted his scoring, averaging 19.2 points. Recently he's been taking more shots, and trying to draw more shooting fouls to go to the line, where he shoots 78%.
Another senior starter is center Aron Baynes (6-10, 250), the beefy Australian, who is having another solid season, averaging 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds. Baynes is one of the toughest bangers UCLA will face all season, and will be a great deal to handle for Alfred Aboya. Washington State tries very hard to get the ball in his hands on the block and give him space to create. He's very good with baseline spins and turnarounds, and when he has the block sealed off there isn't much you can do about it. He's not explosive off the floor, but his shot is still hard to block because of his width. He also works hard to go the line and converts 72% of his free throws.
Rochestier, Baynes and freshman wing Klay Thompson (6-6, 187) have started every game for the Cougars. Thompson, considered one of the best freshmen to come into the league this season, is more or less living up to his hype, averaging 11.5 points per game and 4.4 rebounds, while shooting about 36% from three. He can put the ball on the floor, but he prefers to shoot the three, with 40% of his shots coming from behind the three-point line. Thompson, like most freshmen, has some weaknesses; on offense, if you get up in him, he gets flustered, especially if he doesn't have enough room to shoot. He is a bit soft physically, avoiding contact, so if you can bump him around some it also disrupts him. On defense, he doesn't have great lateral quickness and doesn't body up much.
Daven Harmeling (6-7, 227) is another senior, and he's been struggling some in his final year. A career 40% three-point shooter, he's gone 1 for 10 in his last six games. The one he hit was a big one, forcing the Oregon State game to go into overtime. That shot was the first one he made from the field in a month before that game. Every opposing coach, though, including UCLA's Ben Howland, is wary, not wanting to be the team WSU faces when Harmeling pulls out of his slump.
Harmeling has started most of WSU's games, as has junior Nikola Koprivica (6-6, 211). Yes, it's another Nikola from Belgrade and, like UCLA's, this one is also enamored of shooting the three ball, while he's only shooting 36% from the arc. Bennett has far more confidence in Harmeling as a shooter and will keep feeding him the ball, while Koprivica's minutes have been less consistent recently. In fact, against Oregon he got only 7 minutes off the bench.
A sometime-starter is senior post Caleb Forrest (6-8, 225), who is a pure baseline guy that Bennett will use to match up against bigger opposing lineups and to give Baynes a blow.
Freshman DeAngelo Casto (6-8, 228) started out the season averaging about 18 minutes per game, then that fell to under double figures until recently. He started against Oregon, played 26 minutes, had six points and seven rebounds. Casto, a strong kid who looks fairly physically mature, is a good rebounder, with strength and length, and Bennett uses him when he needs more rebounding, which seems to be often since Forrest, Harmeling and Koprivica aren't exceptional rebounders.
Then there are more freshmen coming off the bench: Marcus Capers (6-4, 172) is a fairly good athlete that is a slasher type; Abe Lodwick (6-7, 200), Mike Harthun (6-3, 175) and Charlie Enquist (6-10, 225) get very limited minutes.
Washington State is known for not scoring many points – and keeping opposing teams from scoring many points.
They're only allowing 52.4 points per game, which is the best in the Pac-10. But they're scoring just 59.4 points per game, which is the worst in the conference.
The Cougars limit possessions, almost never running and using just about every second of every shot clock. On the defensive end, they play a strict man-to-man, allowing opposing teams to get very few open looks. They're very good at getting back on transition defense and almost never allow a fastbreak basket. They lead the league in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 36% from the field.
There are some interesting match-ups. It will be interesting to see how physically Aboya can play against Baines, and how often UCLA will double Baines when he catches it (we expect often). Jrue Holiday very well could be the guy who gets assigned Thompson, showing in his defense of USC's DeMar DeRozan that he can overcome bigger opponents with his quickness. Holiday is the kind of defensive pest that does well against Thompson.
The premier match-up is Rochestie against Collison, two of the most effective point guards in the league who are both big-game clutch guys.
While WSU does have an extended bench, Bennett has been shortening it as of late. Rochestie is averaging a whopping 39 minutes per conference game, Thompson 34, and Baynes 32. When you're putting in such effort on the defensive side, like WSU does, and having to work hard for just about every offensive look in the halfcourt offense, those are some exhausting numbers.
WSU just isn't the team it was the last couple of years without Weaver and Low, which represent some considerable scoring ability on the perimeter. It's also a drop-off defensively, no one coming close to being the perimeter defender that Weaver was. Man for man, UCLA has an edge at every position except maybe center, but you could even make a case that Aboya is an advantage over Baines.
The Cougars haven't, also, shown to be particularly tough at home this season, suffering four of their six losses in Pullman.
As we stated above, we'd be foolish to not say it's going to be close, but UCLA should win it in a typical, slow grinder.
Washington State 58