Cougs' youth will need to step it up vs. Zags

PULLMAN -- Half of the 14 players who have seen action for the Washington State men's basketball team are freshmen, and their contributions have been substantial at times. When it comes time for the heavy lifting, however, the freshmen have – for the most part -- been seen and not heard.

Heading into Wednesday's showdown with fourth-ranked Gonzaga (7 p.m., FSN) in Pullman, the Cougars are 0-2 against Top 25 teams and 6-0 against everyone else. Freshmen have scored just 18 of WSU's 95 points (20 percent) against the two ranked teams, compared to 143 of 397 points (35 percent) in the six wins.

Some of the drop in scoring can be explained by reduced playing time. It's only natural for most freshmen to struggle against better teams. Unfortunately for the Cougars, they need freshmen to help out in a big way in a big hurry. That's particularly true against outstanding, veteran teams like 6-0 Gonzaga.

COMMENTARY

Two true freshmen, shooting guard Klay Thompson and power forward DeAngelo Casto, are particularly vital to WSU's chances.

Thompson leads the Cougars in scoring, field-goal attempts and 3-point field-goal attempts. He's regarded as WSU's best pure shooter, but his shooting percentages (44 percent overall, 35 percent on 3's) are quite ordinary so far, and so is his scoring average (11.6).

Thompson, while arguably the most polished WSU true freshman this side of Steve Puidokas, has gone scoreless in one half of each of the past three games. That includes the losses to Pittsburgh (currently ranked third) and Baylor (No. 24), when he totaled 11 points on 5-for-17 shooting.

"We all have a tremendous amount of faith in Klay … he'll be fine," senior forward Daven Harmeling said.

Casto is raw offensively and has not finished well around the basket. He's averaging 3.4 points per game and shoots 38 percent from the floor and 56 percent at the free-throw line. Against the two ranked teams, he has a collective five points, eight rebounds and no blocks.

Despite playing just 17.1 minutes per game off the bench, Casto ranks second on the Cougars in blocked shots (1.1) and third in rebounding (4.4). The 6-foot-8 Casto has the type of length, quickness and leaping ability that makes him a versatile defender well suited for WSU's constant switching and "help" techniques on defense.

Casto could play a key role against the explosive Zags, who average 80 points per game and give up 59.3. The Cougars are scoring a modest 61.5 ppg, but they rank among the nation's best with 45.2 points allowed and 32 percent shooting by opponents. Gonzaga's foes are shooting just 34.8 percent.

Six Bulldogs average 10 or more points per game, compared to three Cougars. At least three Bulldogs are NBA prospects: 6-11 forward-post Josh Heytvelt (15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg), 6-11 forward Austin Daye (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.5 bpg) and 6-2 point guard Jeremy Pargo (10.2 ppg, 7.2 assists, 1.0 steals).

The Cougars are hoping for their first sellout of the season. Gonzaga won seven straight over WSU before the Cougars won the past two years to improve their record in the all-time series to 97-45.

As usual, the Bulldogs will try to boost the tempo of the game. However, this year's Bulldogs are better suited to play at the slower pace preferred by WSU because Gonzaga has improved defensively.

NOTABLE NOTES:
• Gonzaga is close to selling out its annual game at Seattle's KeyArena (capacity 17,098), but the Cougars might be lucky to match the 12,471 they drew for The Citadel last year in their annual game at the Key. Lightly regarded Montana State (3-3) is WSU's opponent Saturday in Seattle and just more than 11,000 tickets have been sold so far. The Bulldogs face second-ranked Connecticut (8-0) in their Seattle game Dec. 20.

• WSU senior point guard Taylor Rochestie is averaging 10 points and career highs of 5.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 94 percent shooting on free throws, but he's shooting a career-low 35 percent from the field. His 2.75 turnovers per game ties his career worst, set as a freshman at Tulane. Last season, Rochestie averaged 10.4 points, 4.7 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.7 turnovers, and he shot 46 percent from the field and 80 percent at the line. Rochestie is nailing 36 percent of his 3-pointers this season, compared to 42 percent last season.

• Former Cougar star Derrick Low and his Sydney Spirit teammates agreed to 56 percent pay cuts so their financially struggling team can make it through the season in Australia's top pro league. That would reduce Low's total compensation to roughly $40,000. Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, a native of Australia, pledged $30,000 to aid the Spirit.

• Prior to Saturday's loss to Baylor, the Cougars had won 19 consecutive nonconference home games since losing 54-52 to No. 25 Gonzaga on Dec. 7, 2004. Gonzaga is the third-straight opponent that agreed to come to WSU in return for a home game, with no cash exchanging hands. The Cougars weren't as fortunate two weeks ago when little Canisius College flew all the way from Buffalo to get crushed -- but for a hefty $100,000 paycheck.


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