Beach's Breakdown - WSU

It's a glorious time for college hoops fans. The annual march of the non-conference weaklings has come to an end, and after six weeks of collective gorging on cupcakes, the real 2009 season is about to begin. Unfortunately, for the Washington Huskies and their fans, their biggest nemesis looms large in what should be one of the most unpredictable and exciting conference openers in years.

No team in the Pac-10 has dominated the Huskies more over the last three years than rival Washington State, who ran their winning streak to seven straight games last season. It's true that Jon Brockman, one of the greatest players to ever don a Husky uniform, has never beaten the Cougars.

The Cougars present a unique challenge for the entire Pac-10 conference because of Tony Bennett's plodding style of play, but for Washington it's been a nightmare. In its design, Coach Bennett's system naturally counters nearly every Husky advantage.

Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar has built his system around transition scoring and early offense – something that the Cougars are able to hinder by dropping four players back in transition defense. But dropping so many players back means four fewer bodies to collect offensive rebounds: The Cougars are last in the conference in that statically category at eight per game (the Huskies are first at nearly 15). Bennett figures it's worth the sacrifice to slow down his opponents, allowing WSU to set the early tempo.

By doing so, it means the Husky guards are going to have to avoid the temptation of trying to attack the basket too often on the break. Venoy Overton and Justin Dentmon get caught in the trees enough as it is without having to worry about four defenders waiting for them. If history is any indicator, those points aren't going to be there.

Though the Cougars lost one of the finest defenders in the country - Kyle Weaver - to graduation, they're still an excellent defensive team. Ken Pomeroy ranks them sixth in the country in defensive efficiency. Their swarming man-to-man defense can be combated by penetration and dishing out to the perimeter for open 3-pointers, but the Huskies aren't a particularly good shooting team from deep. Elston Turner, arguably their best 3-point shooter, is doubtful to play due to an ankle injury suffered Tuesday against Morgan State. That leaves senior Dentmon and freshmen Isaiah Thomas the lone shooters on the floor for the Huskies, although Overton showed signs of life against the Bears, hitting two 3-pointers.

The Cougars even have a natural defense for Brockman in senior Aron Baynes. Baynes is a big brute, taller than Brockman by three inches and every bit as strong. Historically, Baynes' presence has limited Brockman's effectiveness against Washington State, though he's foul prone at times and has a tendency to get too aggressive. Mathew Bryan-Amaning's emergence as a low post threat makes guarding Brockman more difficult since teams have to be wary of sending double teams and leaving the weak side undefended, but passing around the wide-bodied Aussie is easier said than done.

The Cougars have also added a wrinkle into their defensive strategy with former Washington State prep Player of the Year DeAngelo Casto. The athletic 6-foot-8 forward is a long-armed defensive force not unlike the Huskies Darnell Gant, and though offensively limited, he creates havoc on defense with his length and surprising quickness.

Finally, the Cougars like to play slow - which has the effect of preventing opponents from finding any offensive rhythm, while making them expend all of their energy on defense. The Cougars' offense relies on patiently waiting for a defensive breakdown, and they are adept at finding open looks due to split-second lapses in defensive focus by their foes.

If this paints a bleak picture for the Huskies chances Saturday, it should. The Cougars are a horrible match-up for UW. There probably isn't a worse system-versus-system match-up in the entire country, and it happens to exist with their biggest rival.

That being said, there are a number of things the Huskies can do to improve their chances of leaving Pullman with a win.

First, they caught a lucky break from the Pac-10 schedulers. Washington State students are away on the holiday break, and the weather in the mountain passes isn't going to help them pad their advantage with early returnees. In years' past, Cougar fans have shown up in force and made their presence felt hours before the opening horn sounded. This time around, the atmosphere is likely to be more muted – at least from the perspective of the ‘Zzu Crew'.

On the court, the Cougars are still very much a work in progress offensively. Senior point guard Taylor Rochestie has faltered without Weaver and Derrick Low by his side, and he is having the worst shooting season of his career. Pomeroy ranks the Cougars' offense the worst in the conference, and they lack a legitimate go-to scoring threat when the baskets aren't falling. WSU is prone to long scoring droughts, especially in the second half when their legs get tired, defensive intensity increases and each possession becomes more valuable. When the shots stop falling, the Cougars start pressing and forcing shots with predictable results. In fact, the Cougars have yet to finish a game against a quality opponent without wilting at the end of the game regardless of the final score.

The Cougar bigs do a pretty good job of steering clear of foul trouble, but it's likely to become a factor against Washington given the Huskies advantage in the post. The Cougars don't generate much offense from any post player other than Baynes, so it will be crucial for the Huskies to go at him early and lure him into foul trouble.

There are four areas of the game that are absolutely critical for success if the Huskies want to win: Obviously, free throw shooting is the first, since the score will likely be close. Every free throw is important.

Secondly, the Huskies must do a better job of taking care of the ball. The home run plays simply wont exist against the Cougars' transition defense, so don't bother. They're going to have to execute their half court offense. Fewer possessions means every trip down the court is precious.

The Cougs don't normally zone, nor do they block many shots or rebound well, so the Huskies are going to attack the paint relentlessly, relying on their offensive rebounding advantage for second-chance opportunities. That's something they do better than most, but they've got to capitalize. The Huskies can bring the house on the offensive glass since the Cougars don't run much and the threat of fast break is limited, but three offensive rebounds after misses in a possession and coming away empty is still coming away empty. They need to find the bottom of the net.

Finally, the Huskies need to bring the same defensive intensity that they've demonstrated the first month and a half of the season, and sustain it for the entire 40 minutes. Washington is starting to become a good defensive team, but WSU uses the entire clock to find an opening and get their shot off. It's a test of will, and Washington hasn't faced anything like that during their non-conference schedule.

And when all else fails? Put the ball in the hands of the little guy. The Cougars don't have a one-on-one defender capable of stopping Thomas alone, and his 27 points against Morgan State means he's rounding into form at just the right time. At the very least, giving Thomas his touches is going to put him on the line or set up offensive rebounding opportunities.

Ultimately, for the Huskies to win, they're going to have to execute and beat Washington State at their own game while pushing the pace whenever possible. The Cougs aren't immune to lapses in focus. When they are lured into speeding up the tempo, they become extremely vulnerable and lack the athletes to play at that pace.

On paper, the Huskies are the better team, but when playing the Cougars that rarely matters much.


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