Something just doesn't feel right about them being a conference title contender, especially in arguably the most brutal Pac-10 slate ever, but conference title contenders they are nonetheless.
The Cougars' preview mirrors the UCLA Bruin preview in a lot of ways, and why not - they are essentially 'UCLA Lite'. They return a talented lineup with a ton of experience, and play in a disciplined defensive-minded system under what appears to be an excellent second year coach in Tony Bennett (it's best to reserve total judgment until Bennett has more than one season under his belt). Like the Bruins, they do a great job of taking care of the ball, they know their roles and don't play beyond their individual capabilities, all while playing the same brand of inside-your-jersey, physical, man-to-man D that the Bruins play.
While the Cougars certainly have talent, they win by running their system and never deviating from what they do best – execution.
Where the Bruins separate themselves from WSU is in coaching and personnel. Tony Bennett is a very good coach, Ben Howland is well…better. WSU has some very good players but they don't have the athleticism or versatility of the Bruins' roster. Simply put, the Cougars lack of elite athleticism and versatility (outside of Kyle Weaver) prevents them from running away from teams and forces them to out-execute opponents at every turn, particularly in their half-court set offense. In other words, they have a much smaller margin for error than UCLA. Other than that, they are very similar teams.
The Cougars' meteoric ascent into the national spotlight last season was nothing short of incredible. Their starting lineup was almost identical to the previous season in which they finished dead last in the conference, save for one notable exception – Josh Akognon. Akognon played the half of his life vs. UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the 2005-2006 season, scoring 25 in the second half in a furious comeback bid that fell just short when Kyle Weaver bricked what would have been the game tying layup.
On the strength of that performance and the fact that he could occasionally get hot from three, a lot of people assumed Akognon was a better player than he actually was. He was undersized and not particularly quick. While he had the ability to get hot and knock down shots, overall he didn't put up great shooting numbers and his decision making and shot selection were questionable at times. He also had trouble guarding larger and more athletic players due his small stature and lack of quickness. Now, it would be unfair…nay insane, to suggest that addition by the subtraction of Akognon's 23 minutes per contest could account for WSU worst to almost first improvement, but he definitely played his part.
However, the reality is that WSU's success was truly one of those rare situations where the light turns on collectively for a veteran group of underrated players.
Speaking of underrated and versatile players, the Cougars have easily the most underrated and versatile player in the conference in Kyle Weaver. Weaver is a rare player for his size being 6-foot-6, but with legitimate ability to play the 1, 2 or 3. We're not talking about a player you can plug in at point and for spot duty and be comfortable that he wont kill you. Weaver is a legitimate playmaker at any of those three positions and in fact led the Cougars in assists and A/TO ratio last season at 4.6 and 1.67, respectively. He was good enough for third in assists per game behind UCLA's Darren Collison and Arizona's Mustafa Shakur and fourth in A/TO ratio behind Cal's Ayinde Ubaka, Collison and Shakur. He is adept at creating his own shot, plays well in the post, finishes well at the hoop, and has a good midrange jumper.
The only thing he doesn't do particularly well on offense is shoot the 3 (.237 last year). On top of that, he is an outstanding on-ball defender, one of the top three in the league last year along with Collison and UCLA's Arron Afflalo. But Weaver is a more versatile defender than either of them. Weaver was second in steals at 2.13 per game behind only Collison, but also ranked sixth in blocked shots and 16th in rebounding.
The rest of the starting five for the Cougs are also excellent. Derrick Low is a tough and intelligent player. He is a point guard, but played off the ball more towards the end of last season. Having Low and Weaver on the floor at the same time - likely the case for around 30 minutes per game - makes for an interesting problem for opposing defenses, since both players are very capable of running the offense. In addition, Low is a good athlete and a good shooter, although his production fell off during the last 8-10 games of the regular season resulting in an overall shooting percentage of .397. That is not indicative of his abilities and he should bounce back nicely.
The departure of Ivory Clark leaves an opening in the front court, and while many Cougar fans will underplay the significance of that loss, don't believe the hype. The undersized Clark may not have been a great offensive player, but he was a serviceable post player and had a decent midrange jumper, chipping in 8.4 PPG and shooting 50 percent from the field. He will be most missed though because he was perfect for the Cougars' system. He brought great energy, was an opportunistic rebounder, and scored a lot of points on put backs and effort-type plays. He was also a very good defender, being able to defend both the wings and the post, and led the team in blocked shots (fifth in the conference). He is not as big a loss as Afflalo for UCLA or Aaron Brooks for Oregon, but he will be tough to replace.
Daven Harmeling is a good bet to replace Clark because of his prolific 3-point shooting ability, in addition to the fact that he is the most experienced of the returning players available. At the same time he will probably share minutes with Nikola Koprivica, who is a solid player returning from injury.
Robbie Cowgill starts at the 4, providing a good midrange jump shot and an above average offensive post game. He plays hard and is generally a good position defender, but despite being 6-foot-10, his slight frame and average athleticism betrays him at times. There will be games this season in which he gets battered a bit by the big, tough and athletic front court players he will have to face in the conference.
At the center position, Aron Baynes will likely continue to build on the improvement he displayed at the end of last season. Baynes is somewhat slow and not overly athletic, but he is skilled, has good touch around the basket and plays within himself. He is also huge at 6-foot-10, 270-pounds, and is very strong. He should provide the Cougs with a legit inside threat and add balance to their offense at worst, but could potentially become a legitimate go-to guy if he takes a step forward.
The Cougars have good depth from their solid, if unspectacular, bench. Taylor Rochestie is a pesky defender and a solid all-around point guard. The athletic, sharp shooting Thomas Abercrombie could make an impact down the road. Due in part to the transfer of guard Mac Hopson to Idaho, the rest of the bench is pretty much either undertalented or unproven (1 and 2-star caliber sleeper-type freshmen, of whom the smooth guard Abe Lodwick seems to be the guy with the most upside).
The biggest concern for the Cougars has to be their lack of athleticism relative to the other top tier squads. There are a lot of players in the Pac-10 that can cause the Cougs all kinds of match-up headaches and if they don't bring it every single night, they are going to lose some games they shouldn't. With the increase in the quality of the conference from top to bottom, the aforementioned margin of error has gotten even smaller for the Cougars. So, while a second place finish sounds right for them due to their experience, coaching and overall skill level, if things don't break right for them they could find themselves in fourth or even fifth place.
#2 - Washington State
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