BIG GAME PREVIEW: Cougs can handle ORU with relative ease

Well, it’s finally here! Washington State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994, one that many experts seem to think is going to be a short-lived one. Here’s a look at how I see it breaking down.

(And if you haven't joined the Hangin' With The Nuss Bracket Challenge, what are you waiting for? Go here and use the password "the nuss". It's free, and it's your chance to publicly humiliate me! Just do it before the first game on Thursday.)

No. 3 Washington State (25-7, 13-5 Pac-10) vs. No. 14 Oral Roberts (23-10, 12-2 Mid-Continent)

Line: Cougars by 6.5.

TV: CBS (Ch. 7 in Seattle area).

Radio: 850-AM (WSU broadcast, Tacoma area)

Media releases (all in PDF): WSU gameday release, Oral Roberts gameday release, NCAA pregame notes and quotes

How the Cougars got here: It was a hot season from the start for the Cougars, who ran through a relatively soft non-conference schedule to the tune of 11-1, the lone blemish a road loss to Utah. But unlike their University of Washington counterparts, the Cougs used the confidence gained in the preseason as a springboard into the conference schedule. Except for Oregon and UCLA – who each beat the Cougars twice – WSU rolled through the Pac-10, sweeping every other team except for Stanford. The Cougars’ consistency was remarkable, especially given the low expectations coming into the year.

WSU kicked off the postseason by beating Washington for the third time, but were bounced in the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament by USC. The Cougars still landed as a No. 3 seed, which came as a bit of a surprise, but exhibited a clear reflection of what most West Coast basketball fans knew all along: That the Pac-10 was a great conference this year, and that the Cougars’ second-place finish in the league was far from a fluke.

Since the end of the season, the accolades have been rolling in for Washington State, led by first-year coach Tony Bennett. He’s been named the Basketball Times and Sporting News national coach of the year and the Pac-10 coach of the year – and that’s probably just the beginning. Joining him are juniors Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, who each were named to the 10-man All-Pac-10 first team. That’s the first time that’s happened in school history.

How the Golden Eagles got here: Oral Roberts has been the picture of the typical small-major program this year. The Golden Eagles kicked off their campaign by traveling around the country and playing any major program that would have them. They pulled off what might still be the upset of the year when they beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in mid-November, but had only mixed success in the rest of the preseason before beginning conference play. Playing nine of their first 14 games away from home, the Golden Eagles finished up 7-7 with road losses to future Tournament teams Georgetown, Arkansas and BYU.

From there, the Golden Eagles pretty well dominated the Mid-Con, winning 12 of its 14 conference games. The only losses were overtime thrillers to Valpo and Oakland. After ripping through the first two games of the conference tournament, ORU avenged its loss to Oakland a week and a half later by beating the Grizzlies on a last-minute shot in the tournament championship to vault into the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Eagles are led by a pair of all-conference performers Caleb Green and Ken Tutt. Green is the three-time defending Mid-Con player of the year, just the 15th such player to play in the NCAA Tournament. With 10 more points, Green will have scored 2,500 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds in his career. Tutt, meanwhile, also has scored 2,000 points in his career. It’s the performance of these two that has led many to believe ORU has what it takes to upset the Cougars in the first round.

Key matchups

For the Cougars, everything starts on defense. ORU’s chances likely hinge on how well the Golden Eagles can penetrate that defense. Here are three specific aspects of the matchup that likely will be crucial in determining the game’s outcome:

  1. Tempo, tempo, tempo: The Cougars’ pace of play preference is as well known as the name Bennett in college basketball. WSU likes to play deliberately, making opponents play defense for 35 seconds. ORU, on the other hand, loves to run. The Golden Eagles led their conference in scoring at 72 points per game. They won’t reach that mark against the Cougars. The question will come in how well the Eagles can deal with what the Cougars like to do. Teams that deliberately try to push the tempo against WSU typically don’t fare very well -- unless they're from Eugene - and ORU is a team that turns the ball over 15 times a game. They can overcome that in the Mid-Con – probably not so much against the Cougs.
  2. Green on offense vs. Ivory Clark, Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes on defense: Caleb Green is a skilled big man with a penchant for getting opponents in foul trouble. While maybe not as athletic as some of the post players the Cougars have faced this year, he’s at least as savvy. The Cougars big men, meanwhile, sometimes have issues staying out on the floor. Green shoots more than 10 free throws per game, and converts more than eight of them on average – the latter leads the NCAA. Will the Cougars choose to play Green straight up, or will they double team him and dare the other Golden Eagles to beat them?
  3. WSU’s 3-point defense against Tutt and Marchello Vealy: There are two types of teams the Cougars have struggled with all year: teams that are athletic and play great defense, and teams that shoot very well from 3-point range. Penetration is hard to come by against the Cougars’ pack-it-in defense, and teams that can shoot over it will have success. Given that Green has faced a steady barrage of double teams all year, he’s gotten very skilled at passing out to open shooters. Tutt was one of the best shooters in the Mid-Con and Vealy hit 7-of-8 3-pointers in the upset of Kansas. ORU will need one of its best shooting days of the year to hang with WSU.

Prediction: I know the national pundits haven’t seen much of the Cougars this year, given their lack of national exposure on network and cable television, but the fact that WSU has become the trendy pick for a first-round upset seems a bit ridiculous. The Cougars are ranked No. 11 in the country and are a No. 3 seed for a reason, and that’s because WSU is – get this – a very good team. The Cougars don’t have recognizable superstars like the other top seeds in the East region, and that makes it difficult for national observers to fully embrace the Cougars.

What these “experts” are missing is the fact that the Cougars play as good of team basketball as anyone in the country. They use a mid-major mentality with high-major talent. Time and time again, WSU has proven that it can win in any number of ways. Early in the year, the Cougars rode Derrick Low. Later in the year, they were as likely to get game-changing contributions from Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes or Daven Harmeling. WSU can beat teams in so many ways, perhaps the most underrated aspect of this team’s success.

The late season “struggles” of WSU will be a bit of fools gold for those looking for NCAA upsets, simply because the WSU system is one that teams get more comfortable against each time they play it (a la USC). Teams facing the Cougs for the first time often find it impossible to prepare for WSU’s defensive intensity. Here’s to betting ORU finds itself befuddled by the Cougars’ swarming defense, and that WSU wins easily. WSU 70, ORU 58.

No comments: