I generally don't write college basketball game previews -- in fact, this is the first one I've done this year -- but tonight certainly calls for something special. The Cougars are going for the Pac-10 regular season title, while the Huskies are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. I'll be in attendance; here's how I think the matchup breaks down:
No. 10 Washington State (21-4, 10-3 Pac-10) at Washington (16-8, 6-7)
Line: Cougars by 3.
TV: Comcast cable Ch. 17 in the Puget Sound area, Click!’s FCS Central channel (expanded digital package), DirecTV Ch. 650, Dish Network Ch. 448 and on FSN in Eastern Washington.
Radio: 950-AM (UW broadcast), 850-AM (WSU broadcast)
Media releases (all in PDF): WSU gameday release, UW gameday release, Pac-10 weekend release
How the Cougars got here: Without a doubt, the Cougars have been the big surprise of the Pac-10 basketball season -- maybe even the big surprise nationally. After being picked to finish last in the conference before the season by the writers who cover it, WSU now sits alone in second place with just five games to go. The Cougars went through a weak nonconference schedule 11-1, but left doubters wondering how they would stack up in a deep and tough Pac-10. We all now know the answer, as this team has continued to gain momentum as the season has gone along.
The Cougars have done it with a blend of their trademark stifling defense and a surprisingly proficient offense. They continue to prove that they can win on the strength of their offense -- something that never happened over the past two years -- while also using their defense to win on nights when the shots aren't falling. They have held their past three opponents under 50 points, the first time that's happened in over 50 years.
How the Huskies got here: The Huskies have been almost as surprising as the Cougars, but for entirely different reasons. Originally a Top 25 team and loaded with young talent, Washington was exposed after a weak nonconference schedule that featured only one road game -- a 20-point beatdown at Gonzaga. The Huskies are 15-1 at home this year, but just 1-7 on the road, a record that includes two Pac-10 losses by 28 points or more.
However, this is a team that has now won 5-0f-6, and might just be gelling -- and not a moment too soon. Forward Jon Brockman has led the way, averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds in a pair of home wins against the Bay Area schools last week, and super-frosh Spencer Hawes appears to be regaining his early season form after struggling with injuries and illness for the better part of the last two months. The perimeter play for the Huskies continues to remain shaky, but they seem to have found a formula for success on offense that involves keeping it out of the guards hands as much as possible and getting it into the hands of Brockman and Hawes.
- Bockman and Hawes on offense vs. Ivory Clark, Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes on defense: The Washington resurgence has been led almost entirely by the improved play of its big men, and how well the Cougars' interior players do at defending them will almost certainly be the on-floor key to the game. Hawes didn't play in the first matchup, and Brockman almost single-handedly got the Cardinal big men in foul trouble on Sunday with his tenacity on the glass. Will Clark, Cowgill and Baynes be able to hold their own without falling deep into foul trouble? Cowgill, the Cougars' best shot blocker, has a special propensity for getting saddled with fouls. I believe whichever team controls the glass controls this game.
- Lorenzo Romar vs. Tony Bennett: I think this is a game that is going to come down to coaching more than most games do. Bennett has really made a name for himself this year as an astute game tactician. This WSU team is surprisingly versatile -- equally comfortable going big or small -- and Bennett isn't afraid to push buttons, since he usually finds something that works. Will he be able to do that once again, given that Washington presents personnel mismatches the Cougars haven't seen this year? On the other hand, Washington isn't a versatile team. How well can Romar get his kids to control the tempo and take advantage of potential mismatches? Romar is a great coach, but this is a group that hasn't always shown the ability to implement changes on the fly. Will he be able to get them to listen if things go sideways?
Prediction: I know Washington played much better against Cal and Stanford, but I wonder how much better. Remember, this is a team that got blown out by Arizona just a week and a half ago, and Cal (4-8 in the Pac-10) and Stanford (losers of 3-of-4 since beating UCLA) hardly are in the same class as Washington State. The biggest issues UW had against WSU in the first matchup were its inability to get a quality shot on offense, porous defense and lack of care with the basketball. Only one of those things -- shot selection -- figures to improve with Hawes back in the middle.
What I saw against Stanford was a Washington team that outworked and outhustled its opponent; that has yet to happen to the Cougars yet this year, and I don't figure it will start tonight. I also saw a team that was still sloppy with the basketball. If that continues again tonight, WSU will absolutely take advantage. Likewise, I have no reason to believe that Washington will all of a sudden start playing disciplined basketball tonight.
Let's also not forget this: This isn't first time WSU has played a team with revenge on its mind on its home floor. This is a team that went to Arizona and took care of business in the face of a raucous home crowd. This also is a team that won in Seattle last year, and has beaten the Huskies three years in a row. The Cougars have been through the losing, they've seen all the hostile environments, they've taken other team's best shots and still continue to win. That's why I believe, despite the presence of Hawes, that the Cougars will have enough to overcome Washington's emotion and win this game. It'll be close, but WSU's maturity wins out in the end. Washington State 77, Washington 75.