The best chance WSU had to score against the No. 12 Wildcats (22-4 overall, 11-2 Pac-10) was in the low post. Despite sophomore Derrick Williams' offensive prowess, he generally is regarded as a mediocre defensive player who is prone to foul trouble.
WSU coach Ken Bone tried to take advantage of that by starting sophomore Brock Motum in place of struggling junior Abe Lodwick. Motum scored a career-high 19 points in a 75-71 win Saturday against California, but was unable to replicate that against Arizona. Motum finished with four points.
That put the onus on others to hit perimeter shots against the Wildcats, who defend the 3-pointer better than anyone in the conference, who came in holding Pac-10 opponents to 25 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Despite that, junior wing Klay Thompson helped keep the Cougars (17-9, 7-7) close for most of the second half. He finished with 30 points on 11 of 24 shooting. But similar to WSU's 88-81 overtime loss Jan. 13 at California, when he scored 36 points, Thompson received far too little offensive help.
Casto, who had 12 points, was his only teammate to score in double figures. The offensive woes showed early as the Wildcats took a 13-4 lead early.
"We came out and weren't very disciplined," Thompson said during a postgame radio interview. "That hurt us."
BUT THE COUGARS also struggled, and mightily so, on the defensive end. Williams, who is projected as a top-five pick in the NBA draft, was dominant as usual. He had 26 points. But WSU also struggled to contain his supporting cast, allowing Arizona to shoot 48.1 percent from the field (50 percent in the second half).
"We got lackadaisical defensively," Thompson said. "They got a lot of cuts and rebounds from it."
The Wildcats, who are 14-0 at the McKale Center this season, have won seven consecutive games. That largely has occurred because its secondary players, such as Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones, have been productive. It happened again as Hill finished with 12 points, while Jones added 10. Arizona also converted 24 of 26 free throws.
"It's just a sign of a team that's well polished," Bone said. "They're confident."
Even with all those issues, Thompson will the the Cougars back and they trailed just 68-63 with 5 minutes, 17 seconds, remaing. But the ensuing two minutes closed the door on WSU. Williams swished a jumper late in the shot clock and Casto followed by missing an uncontested dunk. Fogg then converted a pair of free throws to extend the Wildcats' lead to 72-63 with 4:13 remaining. Hill's 3-pointer with about three minutes left extended that advantage to an insurmountable 75-63.
BONE DISCUSSED INJURY woes earlier in the week that he said has resulted in some of his team's inconsistency. Junior-college transfer Faisal Aden, who had just two points against Arizona, Casto and junior guard Reggie Moore all have missed time this season, and played hurt, because of injury problems.
But perhaps more significantly, WSU has not successfully recruited enough front-court talent.
Among three signings in 2007 -- Charlie Enquist was a walk-on at the time -- only forward Abe Lodwick remains. And even if back injuries had not ended 6-foot-10 Fabian Boeke's career, he was more noted for his outside shooting than low-post prowess. In 2008, former coach Tony Bennett signed guard Marcus Capers, Casto and Thompson. But three other signings are no longer are on the roster, including 6-8 James Watson who ran into academic problems.
The Cougars might not find another rarity like Aron Baynes anytime soon, but a solid veteran post presence, such as Robbie Cowgill or even Caleb Forrest, to couple with Casto, might have been the difference in a couple of games this season.
More importantly, this season it might be the difference between an NCAA Tournament berth and the NIT.
Thompson figures his team needs to win its last four regular-season games and perhaps two more in the Pac-10 Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. That begins Saturday at last-place Arizona State (9-16, 1-12) at 11 a.m. Saturday (TV: FSN-NW).
"Once again, here we go trying to get that split," Bone said during a postgame radio interview. "I don't care what their record is. It will be tough."
Arizona loss shines light on recruiting issue
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