Hoops: Will Cougs try to run on UCLA?

IF THE PAST is prologue, Washington State vs. UCLA on Sunday night could be tough to watch - for fans of both teams. But either the Cougs or Bruins will come away with a desperately needed win, and the other will face a daunting 0-2 hole to start conference play.

Both WSU (8-5) and UCLA (9-5) have plenty to fix from the last time out. The Cougars played Olé! defense in their Pac-12 opener against USC, allowing the opponent virtually unfettered scoring access and trailing by as many as 25 points in the first half. No. 25 UCLA in a double-OT non-thriller committed 25 turnovers and 31 fouls, losing to UW on the road to open its conference slate 0-1.

The early season storyline for the Cougs was in large part about the infusion of size in the frontcourt in Valentine Izundu (6-10) and Conor Clifford (7-0).  But while Izundu starts, he's averaging only 17.1 minutes per game. Izundu can block with the best of them but his all-around defense hasn't matched the swats. Offensively, he hasn't been much of a factor (4.6 ppg).

Clifford, meanwhile, was slowed by a knee injury and hasn't yet worked himself back into full playing shape. He's averaging only 11.6 mpg and 6.9 ppg and has not been quick enough on the defensive end. Ernie Kent said after the loss to USC that Clifford, "became a big liability having to guard that quickness on the floor, and we had to get him out of the game."  Ouch.

That's left WSU in an all too familiar situation -- with Josh Hawkinson (6-10) the only true big man consistently on the floor for the Cougars. Hawkinson is a double-double machine. As impressive as that has been, his best attributes are on offense, leaving a hole on defense that hasn't been filled enough this season despite a soft non-conference schedule. 

Not that the Cougars' perimeter defense against stiffer competition has been strong. USC drilled 50 percent of its 3-pointers against WSU and the Cougs are allowing 70.3 ppg (again, keep in mind the non conference slate was Downey soft in comparison to Pac-12 level competition).

Guard Ike Iroegbu and Hawkinson have averaged 30.4 of WSU's 75.6 ppg.  Opponents, to this point, can focus their defensive firepower on those two and feel pretty good about their chances.

The good news for the Cougs is that UCLA could have tired legs.  UCLA starters took 65 of its 69 field goal attempts at UW on Friday night.  Conversely, two WSU starters in guards Charles Callison and Que Johnson played just 17 and 15 minutes, respectively, in the loss Friday.

Will WSU try to run, run, run against would should be a UCLA squad with less than a full tank?

If so, UCLA might have to in turn play reserves Jonah Bolden (6-10) and Prince Ali (6-3) more than they want, and WSU needs to pounce and seize the upper hand if that's the case. Both are talented youngsters and if the Cougs allow them to gain confidence, it could be another long night.

But they key might be Que. 

The Cougs would benefit greatly against the Bruins if Johnson could start out hot and have a big scoring game. His season high this season is 18 points, against Gonzaga.  He is the only Cougar besides Hawkinson and Iroegbu to average in double figures this season (10.3).

The bad news: as sloppy and unfocused as the Bruins looked on Friday, they are ranked No. 25 for a reason and boast wins over No. 1 Kentucky and Gonzaga this season. Hawkinson had a double-double at UCLA last season with 21 points and 14 boards, but the Cougars still lost 72-67.

The key to a Cougar win might rest on if WSU can force UCLA into playing zone defense rather than its preferred man-to-man.  Before the Bruins got into foul trouble against UW, they played man and held the Huskies to 26 percent shooting in the first half. In the second half (and against more UCLA zone), the Huskies shot 40 percent and then 47 percent in overtime.

WSU is shooting 44.5 percent over its last four games. The Cougs shot 53.8 percent through their first nine contests.

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