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Hoops: Can WSU get to the free throw line against UW?

WASHINGTON STATE (12-15/5-10) hasn't swept Washington (9-18/2-13) in hoops since 2010-11. If the Cougars are to do that on Sunday night (5:30 pm, ESPNU), they might have to do two things they haven't done a whole lot of recently.

1. Get to the free throw line.
2. Drive the lane more with Malachi Flynn.

Washington State shoots 75.8 percent from the line, t-25th nationally (UW shoots 65.7 percent). But that lofty percentage doesn't mean as much if you don't get to the line. 

In its last five games, WSU has averaged a mere 8.0 free throw attempts.  Its opponents during that stretch have averaged 19.4 FTA.  This is not a recent 5-game trend: Wazzu this season ranks 338th out of 347 D-I teams in free throw attempts. And in 15 Pac-12 games, Washington State has attempted more free throws than only four  opponents. 

But one of those times was in the 79-74 win over Washington.  The Cougs went 17-21 from the charity stripe  while the Huskies were only 4-6.  Such a large disparity would seem unlikely twice, but the Cougs' chances for victory increase greatly the more they get to the line.

Meanwhile, Flynn is the Cougs' best 3-point shooter this season at 41.8 percent.  But in the last meeting with UW, the most critical of Flynn's 16 points, the ones that helped decide the game down the stretch, came when he drove the lane.

The true freshman out of Bellarmine Prep hasn't taken it to the hole as much as the season has gone along, whether that's due to fatigue, game plan or a combination of both. And it wouldn't be wise to move too far away from Flynn's 3-point shooting prowess.  But with the Cougs fully rested having last played eight days ago, and with Charles Callison shooting nearly the same from downtown (41.6 percent) it would seem to make sense to have Flynn at least test the UW defense with dribble-drives. 

The Huskies don't have a lot of size inside, Malik Dime is the tallest of the projected starters at 6-9.  And Cougar bigs Josh Hawkinson (26) and Conor Clifford (14) figured prominently in the win over the Huskies earlier this season. It would again seem to make a lot of sense for the Cougs to get the ball into the post. That said, the bigger test for Hawkinson and Clifford, and WSU as a whole against UW, might come on defense.

The Huskies want to turn the game into a track meet, their average possession length is 17th nationally at 15.1 seconds, according to Kenpom.com.  And while memories may have faded, WSU trailed the fast-paced Huskies in the earlier meeting by 13 points at one point and WSU was down by four late before a 12-3 closing run. Clearly, resiliency played a major role for the Cougs last time out against the Huskies.

Oh, and it didn't get a lot of notice because it came in a loss but Husky guard Markelle Fultz last time came within an eyelash of a triple-double against WSU with 26 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. 

Fultz leads the conference with 23.2 points per game. Few teams have been able to slow him down and barring something unforeseen he's going to get his points against WSU.

What Washington State can't allow is for one of the other Huskies, in concert with Fultz, to also have a huge night. It would also help the Cougar cause if Fultz has to chuck it up a bunch to get his points. Fultz shot 11 of 26 from the floor, 3 of 8 from deep, last time vs. Washington State.

Kenpom predicts a WSU win, 79-78. But Las Vegas has installed the Huskies as a 2-point favorite.  WSU seniors Ike Iroegbu, Hawkinson, Clifford and Callison all play their final home game Sunday for the Cougars.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • WSU was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 media poll this season. With a win over UW, the Cougs would climb into a three-way tie for eighth place with Colorado and Stanford.  A loss would keep WSU in 10th place, with meetings at USC and UCLA to close out the regular season next week.  A loss by Washington on Sunday guarantees it can finish no better than 11th in the conference standings.
  • The road team has won three of the last four games in the WSU-UW series. The last 10 meeting have been decided by an average of 6.2 points, and 8 of the last 10 have been decided by five points or less.
  • UW is on a nine-game losing streak, tied for the longest in school history.  That said, the Huskies last time out played No. 5 Arizona tight to the bitter end before falling 76-68.

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