Hoops: Previewing the Cats and Cougs

ARIZONA (12-1) AND fast-charging Washington State (13-2) are set to tango in Pullman Saturday night in a match up that could go far in shaping the Pac-10's post-season. Arizona will bring its high flying offense and 12-game winning streak into Pullman to face a Cougar squad off to its best start since George Raveling was roaming the sidelines.

The apple clearly didn't fall far from the tree when it comes to the coaching styles of Dick Bennett and his son Tony. Following his father's retirement after last season, some wondered if Tony, 36, could continue the trajectory set by his dad. Street & Smith's magazine went so far as to predict that Washington State would finish dead last in the Pac-10.

It's amazing what happens when teams actually play the games, though. On Saturday, all eyes will be on Pullman as the resurgent Cougars host an Arizona team ranked No. 7 in the nation and coming off of an impressive road win against Washington on Thursday.

This game will pit two very good teams with two very contrasting styles. Here's the rundown:

OFFENSE

Arizona continues to make things look easy on the offensive side of the ball. Their passing is nothing less than outstanding. At times, Arizona looks like the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Nationals. That said, Saturday will be an unbelievable test against the defensive-minded Cougars. The key question will be tempo. If it's fast-paced, the Cats win going away. If it's half-court methodical, hold onto your hat.

Washington State is patient on offense, but not as patient as they have been in the past. The one wrinkle Tony has instituted since taking over for his dad is that this Wazzu team will take the first available open shot. Derrick Low is the No. 1 option and for good reason. He's shooting a lofty 50.9 percent from the field and averaging 15 points per game. The Cougars are fundamentally sound and have several players who are capable of having big offensive games if the Wildcats focus too much on Low, Kyle Weaver or Robbie Cowgill.

Arizona put on an impressive offensive display against the Huskies on Thursday, shooting an incredible 76 percent from the floor in the second half (65 percent for the game). On the same night, Wazzu allowed the Sun Devils to shoot 54.8 percent from the floor, although they routed ASU 75-55.

On the surface, this looks like a lethal combination for Wazzu and good news for the Cats. Unfortunately, one has nothing to do with the other. WSU admittedly was a bit lacks on defense against ASU and won't play that way again. Similarly, Arizona had some defensive breakdowns on Thursday night but that was mainly due to the equally impressive play of the Huskies. The bottom line is this: Man for man, Arizona has the more explosive offensive firepower. If they continue to create open shots by making the extra pass they should keep the Cougs scrambling.

DEFENSE

Arizona's defense continues to get overlooked, or perhaps overshadowed by its stellar offense. Arizona allowed Washington to shoot better than 53 percent from the field but anyone watching these two teams may have thought they were watching a game between the 1984 Celtics and Lakers. With so many offensive weapons, it's easy to forget that 6'4" guard Jawann McClellan squared up and blocked 7'0" Spencer Hawes' shot, or that the Wildcats held the Huskies to no field goals in the game's final 4:35. Arizona has played a lot of zone defense this season, but it was their man-to-man that stifled the Huskies. Expect Arizona to go back to their zone against the Cougars and force WSU to make some deep shots.

WSU plays great team D, ranking No. 1 in the Pac-10 by giving up an average of 58 points per game. The Cougs rotate well, help well, and when they want to (which is more often than not) they simply just get after it. That means diving for loose balls, flying out of bounds, taking charges, et. al. They've played a tough schedule so they'll be prepared for Arizona. They've beaten Gonzaga, San Diego State and USC and lost a heartreaker to UCLA, 55-52, at Pauley.

Still, the Wildcats will pose the biggest threat to the Cougars. If they can find a way to get a hand in Jawann McClellan's face and keep Chase Budinger and Marcus Williams away from the basket they'll be right on their game plan.

Arizona will have to earn every basket they make. WSU, though, will also struggle to score against a very underrated Cat defense. Lute Olson actually commented after the Washington game that his team needed to learn how to play defense. Anytime a coach calls out his players in the press you know he really doesn't mean it. What he is trying to do is get his Cats into the mind set that Wazzu's control game is much different than Washington's run and gun style. That being true, Arizona will be forced to play defense in the half court set and if they're not mentally prepared to do so, then it could be a long night.

REBOUNDING

Arizona has an opportunity to dominate on the boards against Wazzu in that for the first time in several games, it'll be the Wildcats who will be the team looking to attack the offensive boards, leaving the Cougars to fend off the aggressors. Unfortunately for Arizona since the Cougars play good team-oriented defense, they also rebound well because rarely is anyone out of position on the floor when a shot goes up. The good news is that Arizona is more athletic and will have lengthier players on the floor than the Cougs. Will that translate into more rebounds? Maybe a few, but not many.

Don't be fooled when you see that WSU only averages 29.6 rebounds per game. While certainly not chairmen of the boards, the Cougs' numbers off the glass are sudued in part because games involving the Cougars result in far fewer offensive possessions than games involving up- tempo teams such as Arizona.

So, what happens when two teams with opposite styles face off? We'll find out Saturday as the team that dictates the tempo will have a great chance of winning the game.

No one on the Cougars is considered a dominate rebounder and that could spell trouble for WSU. The Wildcats feature two in Ivan Radenovic and the long-armed Williams. Arizona also usually gets solid production from backcourt mates Mustafa Shakur and McClellan although both were quiet on the boards against the taller Huskies. Arizona will have to attack the offensive glass in order to increase their amount of possessions against Wazzu.

Of course, if they shoot 65 percent from the field again rebounds won't really matter. Something tells me they won't shoot so well against the grittier Cougars so this facet of the game should be interesting to watch. My guess is both teams will rebound well enough to keep it close.

PLAYMAKING

Mustafa Shakur continues to set the pace by handing out 7.9 assists per game. Against the Huskies, Arizona had 24 assists against 34 field goals. On one fast break, the ball touched three players' hands and only bounced once as Marcus Williams finished with a lay up. Now that's impressive. It'll take the same kind of effort, if not greater, against WSU to keep the Cougars off balance.

You hate to say that a team lacks a playmaker but WSU really does. Low is an excellent guard, though more suited to the two than the on but He's more of a throw-his-body into an opponent and try to draw the foul as opposed to a dribble between the legs and then wrap around pass to a teammate for a dunk kind of player. Kyle Weaver can create his own shot and more than a few tear drops fall for Cowgill. Overall, if this team isn't scoring off backdoor cuts and high screens, then they will struggle from the field.

This is the one area of the game where the Wildcats can thrive. If they do, their playmaking ability will prove to be the difference. The negative is that they may try to do too much -- and if they do they could have a high-turnover night.

OVERALL

Possessions in this game will mean everything. They'll be at such a premium that every single offensive rebound will feel like two and every turnover will feel like three. Arizona cannot afford to have limited touches on offense. Even if they miss shots the important thing is to get as many attempts at the basket as possible.


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