BIG GAME PREVIEW: Cougs face toughest matchup yet

Welcome to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a place many Cougar fans wondered if they’d ever see their team in their lifetime. How do the Cougs stack up with Vandy?

No. 3 Washington State (26-7, 13-5 Pac-10) vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt (21-11, 10-6 SEC East)

Line: Cougars by 1.5.

TV: 2:40 p.m. PDT, CBS (Ch. 7/107 in Seattle area).

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

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

How the Cougars got here: After being a trendy pick to get upset in the first round by No. 14 seed Oral Roberts, WSU did little to dispel that notion in the first half of its opener, falling behind the Golden Eagles thanks to a large dose of really cold shooting. All of that changed in a five-second span at the end of the first half when Kyle Weaver followed a Taylor Rochestie layup with a steal and dunk to close the gap to two points heading into the locker room.

It was all Cougars from there, as they outscored Oral Roberts 44-26 in the second half behind efficient offense and suffocating defense. The turnaround was keyed by forward Ivory Clark, who finished with 19 points – including 8-of-8 shooting from the free throw line – and five blocks.

How the Commodores got here: Is there an NCAA Tournament team that has been harder to figure this year than Vandy? Yes, the Commodores had six wins against ranked opponents – including No. 1 Florida in mid-February – but they also lost to such luminary programs as Furman, Appalachian State, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State. They lost twice in a row to No. 12 seed Arkansas to end the season, but then beat No. 11 seed George Washington by 33 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Go figure.

In that game against the Colonials, the Commodores shot the lights out to put GW away nice and early. They hit 10 of their first 12 3-pointers and the rout was on. Interestingly, SEC player of the year Derrick Byars didn’t even have that great of a game. The explosive guard did finish with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists, but most of that came in the second half when the game was already out of reach.

Keys to the Game

  1. Cougs’ perimeter defense against Vandy’s 3-point shooting: The Cougars’ problems with teams that shoot the 3 well have been well documented. In six of their seven losses this year, WSU allowed its opponent to shoot better than 46 percent. The Cougars’ pack-it-in defense invites 3-point shots, and that’s the way Vandy wants it. The Commodores will shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot some more. Guard Dan Cage led the SEC in 3-point shooting at 46 percent. The Commodores average more than 25 3-point attempts a game, and are just about as good as anyone when they’re falling – just ask the Gators. When they’re not falling? Well … just ask Furman or Appalachian State.
  2. Tempo, tempo, tempo: This is going to sound like a broken record, but Vandy is another team that likes to push the tempo. They average better than 76 points a game, but the interesting thing is that their favorite shot out of transition is the 3-pointer. Can the Cougars find the shooters coming off a miss? They’ve struggled with that at times this year – the two losses to Oregon come to mind – and it will be absolutely key to this game. Three-point shooters just want to get their feet set, and if they can’t do it in the half-court game, they’ll look to do it transition.
  3. 25-plus minutes for Aron Baynes: Much has rightfully been made of Ivory Clark’s stellar performance against ORU. But the Cougars have been at their best down the stretch when the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Aussie is effective inside. He didn’t play much against the Golden Eagles, as 6-foot-8 Caleb Green was just too quick for him inside. WSU coach Tony Bennett will have an interesting decision when it comes to Clark and Baynes: Does he go primarily with Clark, who is the better perimeter defender? Or does he go with Baynes in an effort to control the tempo and pound the smallish Commodores inside? If Baynes gets 25-plus minutes, that likely means the game is going the way the Cougars want it.

Prediction: Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is usually all about matchups, and the Cougars could hardly have gotten a more difficult one for them in the second round of this tournament. Vandy is the Cougars’ worst nightmare: A team that shoots the 3-pointer without conscience. The question become this: Can WSU expect Vanderbilt to shoot as well as it did in its opener? Much has been made of that 10-for-12 start from long range against GW – so much that no one seems to have noticed the Commodores shot 2-for-19 after that.

It’s awfully, awfully difficult to have two consecutive hot shooting halves in the NCAA Tournament, let alone two consecutive hot shooting games. And while Vandy probably feels pretty good about its whipping of George Washington, even the Commodores would have to admit that outcome had more to do with the Colonials not even getting off the bus than it did with some sort of complete game by Vandy.

The Cougars will show up for this game, and they will bring an intensity the Commodores might not be ready for. GW committed a whopping 20 turnovers against Vandy in the opener; WSU committed only six – just one in the second half. My bet? Vandy falls in love with the 3-pointer, only this time the shots aren’t falling with such regularity, as Cougars swarm at their feet. Meanwhile, the Cougars do what they do on offense to maintain control of the game. The Commodores hit just enough 3s to keep it close, but the Cougars’ toughness wins out in the end. WSU 60, Vanderbilt 58.

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