The 33-point win was the biggest margin of victory in Thursday's tournament action, and it propels the ‘Dores into a Saturday bout with third-seeded Washington State of the Pac-10 conference. The winner earns a trip to East Rutherford for the Sweet 16.
Washington State overcame a halftime deficit to handle trendy Cinderella pick Oral Roberts in their first-round game. The Cougars' stifling man-to-man defense held the Golden Eagles to 36 percent shooting en route to a 16-point win.
Coming off a season in which it finished a dismal 4-14 in conference play, Washington State was the media's preseason pick to finish last in the Pac-10. However, under first-year coach Tony Bennett, the Cougars began the season 15-2, including wins at Southern Cal and at home over then seventh-ranked Arizona.
Though they finished second in the Pac-10 with a 13-5 conference record, the Cougs weren't able to score wins over the two other top teams in their league, as they were swept by UCLA and Oregon. Despite bowing out in the semifinals of the conference tournament, they grabbed a No. 3 seed in the East region to set up a second-round date with Vanderbilt.
Like the Commodores' first-round opponent, the Cougars rely on a couple of athletic guards to lead their attack on both ends. Juniors Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver are the team's leading scorers. More importantly, though, they are the best perimeter defenders on a defensive unit that allowed just 59 points per game in the regular season.
Standing 6-1, Derrick Low leads WSU in scoring with 13.5 points per game. The Hawaii native can play point guard, but Tony Bennett prefers to run him off the ball to take advantage of his sweet touch from the perimeter. Low shoots 40 percent from behind the arc, and he leads the Cougars with 70 three-pointers on the year. A decent distributor, he is one of just three Wazzu players averaging at least two assists per contest. His 2.1 helpers are somewhat offset by his 1.5 turnovers per game, but the junior usually stays under control. Low excels coming off screens for jumpers, an ability complemented by his quick first step. Though he's a dangerous outside shooter, he's also a streaky one. Most Commodore defenders have a significant size advantage over Low; if they can consistently contest his outside shot, the ‘Dores can neutralize the Cougars' high scorer.
Kyle Weaver is Washington State's second-leading scorer and best all-around player. Standing 6-5, the swingman leads his team in rebounds (5.6 rpg) and assists (4.5 apg). Averaging just over 11 points per game, Weaver isn't a threat from the perimeter – he's shooting an abysmal 24 percent from beyond the arc. However, his height and superior athleticism allow him to get plenty of shots in the lane and in the mid-range. Further, the junior is the Cougars' best offensive rebounder, giving him even more chip shots around the basket. All this contributes to Weaver's efficiency as a scorer – he shoots just under 50 percent from the floor. However, Wazzu cannot count on him to carry the scoring load, as his season-high point total is just 17. Weaver's biggest impact comes on the defensive end. His quickness and 6-5 frame make him one of the best perimeter defenders in the country; he'll make life on the outside tough for Vandy's wings.
Sophomore point guard Taylor Rochestie gives Washington State the ball-handler necessary to move Derrick Low off the ball. After scoring in double figures just once in the team's first 29 games, the 6-1 Rochestie has scored at least 11 in the Cougars' last four, including a 21-point performance in a double-overtime win in the regular season finale against USC. A pure shooter, he shoots over 41 percent from three-point distance, and he went 17-of-17 from the free throw line in WSU's last four games. While Rochestie's scoring bursts have been a pleasant surprise, Tony Bennett knows he can rely on the sophomore to be an effective distributor – he is the only Cougar to post better than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is quick to the basket, but not overly quick on defense
The Cougar frontcourt defense is anchored by 6-10 junior Robbie Cowgill. His long arms and activeness in the paint make up for his slight build (he weighs just under 207), making him an effective deterrent to lay-up seeking guards and stronger forwards. Cowgill is Wazzu's second-leading rebounder, grabbing 5.3 boards per game, and he chips in almost eight points per game. Though he's not a major offensive threat, he'll score a few put-backs if opposing forwards sleep on him when the shot goes up. The center has shown a tendency to get into foul trouble, so Vanderbilt's best bet to find shots in the paint might be to attack Cowgill early in hopes that he picks up a couple of cheap fouls.
Fellow 6-10 center Aron Baynes has recently joined Cowgill in WSU's starting frontcourt. The 270-pound sophomore averages just five points and three rebounds per game, but his minutes and numbers have increased down the home stretch. Baynes didn't play for more than 19 minutes in any of the team's first 27 games, but he's logged more than 20 minutes in five of the last six contests. The Australia native scored 25 points on 10-of-10 shooting against USC before being held to a combined 13 points in his last three games. Though his size could pose some problems for the Commodores, Baynes' minutes will likely be limited against a quicker Vandy lineup.
Forward Ivory Clark is the lone senior in Wazzu's regular rotation. The Cougars' best athlete, the 6-6 Clark led the team in blocked shots, swatting away 1.5 per game. He's relinquished his starting role to come off the bench in the last three games, but he was the spark plug in the team's first-round win over Oral Roberts. The senior scored 19 points and snatched six boards in the victory. Overall, Clark is an efficient scorer. He shoots just over 50 percent from the floor (tops on the team), and his 8.5 points per game rank fourth on the squad. Like Cowgill, Clark tends to get in foul trouble quicker than most big men due to his aggressiveness on defense; he's been limited to an average of 24 minutes per game this season.
Sophomore Daven Harmeling gives the Cougars some firepower off the bench. A starter for much of the season, the 6-7 wing plays an important role in Tony Bennett's rotation. He is the team's best outside shooter, hitting 43 percent of his three-pointers. However, Harmeling has gone cold recently, connecting on just four of his last 16 three-pointers . At 6-7, the sophomore can match up defensively with taller wings (such as Vandy's Foster or Byars), but he struggles with bigger, stronger forwards and doesn't add a lot of quickness to the Cougar defense.
Finally, backup point guard Mac Hopson rounds out Coach Bennett's regular rotation. The sophomore has seen his minutes steadily decline this season. He began the year as a starter but played just seven minutes in Wazzu's first-round game on Thursday. A solid three-point shooter and decent point guard option, Hopson has recorded games of nine and eight assists this year, but he will likely see around seven (or fewer) minutes against Vandy on Saturday.
Tony Bennett's Cougars couldn't be much more philosophically different than the George Washington team the Commodores faced on Thursday. Those Colonials stuck to their zone until the bitter end; Wazzu will spend 40 minutes playing disciplined man-to-man. GW aimed to score in transition often; the Cougars grind the tempo to a halt with their methodical offensive sets. The ‘Dores must win a different kind of game on Saturday.
Washington State's success begins and ends with the defense. The Cougs, who allowed just 59 points on average this season on 40 percent shooting, use Low and Weaver to harass the opposing perimeter players, making it a struggle for opponents to run an offense quickly. Wazzu defenders seldom gamble for steals, instead preferring to stay constantly in front of opponents and causing them to take contested shots. At times they'll collapse on the paint to force kick outs and more contested jumpers.
Opposing teams have a hard time forcing their tempo on Washington State because of the stifling man-to-man. A poor offensive rebounding team, WSU will sacrifice a board here or there to get everyone back on defense to frustrate their opponent for another round.
On the offensive end, the Cougars run countless screens to free different shooters on the perimeter. Dumping the ball off to a forward for a kick-out is a staple of this WSU team as well. They have multiple players capable of leading them in the scoring column, yet no Cougar is a real threat to score 25 points. Their attack is inconsistent, but if the defense is forcing bad shots and turnovers, the Cougs can score in a hurry.
In retrospect, George Washington may have been the best possible draw for Vanderbilt. The Colonials' 1-3-1 allowed the Commodore shooters to take target practice for the entire first half, and a big lead allowed the starters to rest for the last eight to ten minutes. Now, Vandy has a chance to reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years. To get past the Cougars and punch a ticket for the regionals, here are the keys to the game for the ‘Dores:
- Inside-Out: Unlike GW, the Cougars will not let Vanderbilt make two passes and find an open three-pointer very often. The ‘Dores will have to work for shots from the perimeter, but they can be had against this Wazzu team. If Vandy can establish some sort of inside game early, whether it's Byars from mid-range or Neltner or Skuchas on the block, the Cougars will turn up the pressure on the interior. Consequently, post entries and kick-outs will give Foster, Cage, Gordon, and Byars an extra split-second to get the outside shot off. Most days, that extra split-second is all they need. Wazzu has proven to be susceptible to open three-pointers when opponents display disciplined ball movement. If anyone can take advantage of that, it's the ‘Dores.
- The "T" Word: Facing a low-scoring, defensive-minded team like Washington State, the ability to adjust to the tempo of the game is crucial. If Vanderbilt forces up contested jumpers trying to run the Cougars out of the gym, the ‘Dores will shoot a miserable percentage from the field, and their season will end on Saturday. However, this team has already proven that it can play at a subdued tempo, beating Georgia, LSU, and Kentucky in physical, low-scoring games. They are renowned for the three-ball, but these Commodores can defend, too. They won't get the Cougars to run with them, but if they can pick their spots and force some turnovers, transition points will follow. Combined with good shot selection in the half-court, those transition points could be the difference for Vanderbilt.
- Point Men: Vanderbilt's scorers, Foster and Byars, will certainly be vital on Saturday. However, facing a team that defends so well against the fast break and in the half-court, the play of Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal will determine whether or not Vandy moves on. To win, the Commodores need to convert on transition opportunities and remain under control when the shot clock ticks below 15 seconds. Both rely on the point guard. Gordon was superb on Thursday, as he played totally under control and knocked down a pair of long three-pointers. If he can lead the break and hit a few shots when the offense breaks down, he'll make life much easier on Foster and Byars.
Prediction: They've flown under the radar for most of the season, but the Cougars are a solid team that plays outstanding defense and can completely manipulate the pace of a game. However, even while Wazzu has gotten both UCLA and Oregon to play at its preferred tempo, Derrick Low and company couldn't finish off any elite teams. Not only does Vanderbilt have experience playing at WSU's tempo, but the ‘Dores have grabbed more than a couple of signature wins. These teams are fairly evenly matched, but Vanderbilt boasts two deadly scorers, while the Cougs can't claim one. Look for the Commodores' shooting to give them a lead, but it's their defense that will maintain it. Final score: Vanderbilt 72, Washington State 63.