After K-State win, Cougs look to topple Zags

PULLMAN -- One year ago, Washington State's near-upset of in-state rival Gonzaga fell two points shy when Josh Akognon's three-point attempt in the waning seconds clanged off the left side of the rim. In the time since, both teams have undergone major changes, and heading into tonight's matchup with the Bulldogs, the Cougars have a much larger hurdle to clear if they're going to be within striking distance this time around.

"They have a lot of weapons," said WSU swingman Kyle Weaver, specifically mentioning GU forward Adam Morrison, center J.P. Batista and point guard Derek Raivio.

Tip off is at 6 pm PT and the game will be televised live on FSN.

When Gonzaga came to Pullman last season, power forward Ronny Turiaf was the main attraction on a team that was ranked 25th in the nation. The Cougars were able to contain Turiaf for the most part, holding the eventual NBA draft pick to 17 points and five rebounds, well below his season averages at the time.

Coming into this year's game, the Bulldogs are ranked 9th in the country, and have already posted wins over top-level programs Maryland and Michigan State. Gonzaga has also lost close games to UConn and Washington. With Turiaf gone, the focal point of WSU's defensive game plan will unquestionably be Morrison, a junior who leads the country in scoring with 29.7 points per game. Morrison has already notched two 43-point outbursts this season, against Michigan State and Washington. Morrison scored 12 points against WSU last season, but has been playing in another stratosphere this season.

"It's gonna be pretty hard to stop him," Weaver said. "It's tough. He's a bigger wing, and he has that inside-out game. It's probably gonna take me, Ivory (Clark) and even Robbie (Cowgill) to contain him."

The most natural defensive matchup for Morrison is Weaver, a long and quick 6-foot-5 sophomore who can guard point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. But as Weaver said, the Cougars may in certain situations use Clark, a 6-foot-5 power forward with freakishly long arms and more muscle that Weaver; and Cowgill, a lanky 6-foot-10 center with some quickness and shot-blocking skills to guard Morrison, who is already drawing comparisons to Larry Bird.

However, Gonzaga is by no means a one-man team. Even if WSU keeps Morrison from catching fire, it still have to worry about Batista, a 6-foot-9, 269-pound monster in the paint, and Raivio, who is becoming one of the better point guards on the West Coast, if not the country. It is still up in the air, however, whether or not Raivio will play. He suffered a lower-back injury early in GU's last game against Washington and did not return.

"Batista is a big body. We have to keep the ball out of his hands inside," Weaver said. "If Raivio plays, he's good at getting other guys the ball."

In the Dick Bennett era, WSU has split two games with Gonzaga, losing 54-52 at home last season and getting blown out, 96-58, at The Kennel in 2003. Under former coach Paul Graham, Bennett's predecessor, WSU went 0-3 against the 'Zags, the highlight being a narrow overtime loss in Pullman in 2002.

WSU will not have the home court advantage they had for this game last year, nor will they have Thomas Kelati, Jeff Varem or Isaiah Simmons. The departed seniors were not only team leaders, but each played a significant role in WSU's close loss to the Bulldogs last year.

But while the Cougars aren?t as experienced as they were a year ago, they are arguably playing better at this point in the season. At 4-1 in five nonconference games, WSU is coming off back-to-back wins over Wyoming and Kansas State, avenging a pair of losses from last season.

Sophomore point guard Derrick Low played sparingly against GU last year, as it was his first game back from a broken foot. This year, Low is playing on a level with some of the better point guards in the Pac-10. Low is averaging a team-high 12.8 points and 5.2 assists per game, is making 50 percent of his three-pointers, and has a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Clark, a JC transfer, is second on the team with 10.8 points per game and is pulling down 4.4 rebounds per game. Against BYU on Nov. 22, Clark scored a season-high 23 points in the best performance so far for any Cougar this year.

Weaver has been WSU's best all-around performer, tallying 9.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Against Kansas State, he recorded a steal and a block in the game's final stretch that sealed a win.

The Cougars also recently got Cowgill back from a broken collarbone, who along with Clark and freshman Aron Baynes gives WSU an effective front line to combat Gonzaga's combo of Batista, Sean Mallon and David Pendergraft.

Despite their hot start, however, WSU's players have remained focused and humble.

"I'd give us a solid C-plus for how we've been playing," Weaver said. "It's early, so we've got time to jell, but right now we're just working to get the kinks out. We've been able to hang in there and beat teams, instead of falling off at the end of games like we did last year."

Cougfan Top Stories