Game 35: (4) Washington State vs. (1) North Carolina

“It’s a special place to be, and it’s a special group of kids to do something like this.” – Tony Bennett

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Here is my more detailed game preview, with all the ins and outs of the matchup. All the breaking down and speculation are over. It’s time to play ball.

Projected Starters

G Rochestie
G Low
G Weaver
F Cowgill
C Baynes

The line: North Carolina (-8)

Why the Tar Heels might win: Tyler Hansbrough: Mobile like Brook Lopez, and gets to the line. The Cougars either need to stay out of foul trouble or get an incredible game from the bench.

Why the Cougars might win: Derrick Low. Kyle Weaver. Robbie Cowgill. They’re not going out without a fight. Also, UNC hasn’t played many teams as efficient on both sides of the floor as the Cougs. It’s their first real test of the tournament.

X-Factor: Robbie Cowgill. Along with Baynes, the low post defense will have to phenomenal to give Wazzu a chance. At first I feared a potential UNC matchup because of Hansbrough. But if anyone can slow him down on this team, it’s Cowgill. Any help Robbie can provide on the offensive end will be an added bonus.

Prediction: North Carolina 72, Washington State 66.

Actually, you know what?

I’m a believer.

Prediction: Washington State 74, North Carolina 72.

The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object

psychotvspsychob.jpg

There are a lot of Cougar fans out there who probably wanted to see Arkansas beat North Carolina last weekend, and I don’t blame them. But I wasn’t one of them.

This is the matchup I wanted. This is the Rose Bowl vs. Michigan, the Holiday Bowl vs. Texas, or the Rose Bowl again vs. Oklahoma (sorry, we really don’t have a basketball precedent for this). Simply put, this is the Cougs’ opportunity to beat a college sports powerhouse on national TV with the whole world watching. There aren’t many opportunities like this, and the pressure is off: If the Cougs lose, it’s another ho-hum win for the nation’s number one team on the way to a potential national championship. But if the Cougs win, well, feel free to go crazy.

And the game itself presents more story lines: possibly the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense. Psycho T. versus Psycho A.B. (pictured above). The coaching legend-in-waiting (Roy Williams) versus the young gun (Tony Bennett). The prospect of the final game for Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill, who turned this whole program around. To say it is a “contrast of styles” may be a huge understatement. These teams have two different philosophies and one of them will win out on Thursday. Let’s break it down.

Tempo: Contrary to popular belief, you can run on Washington State. You just can’t force it. Notre Dame made that mistake in the Round of 32 and got held to 41 points. The key is to run with intelligence on turnovers and missed baskets. Washington State has a turnover % of 16.7, good for ninth in the nation. So scratch that first idea if you’re UNC. Ultimately the Tar Heels will have to hope for missed shots by the Cougs, and pick and choose their transition opportunities. In the halfcourt, UNC should start watching tape of how Stanford and Arizona used their athleticism to get points in the paint or drive and kick out to open shooters. Low and Rochestie are susceptible to guards like Jerryd Bayless who can drive to the rim. For Wazzu, it’s a matter of making shots, and when they don’t, getting back in the set defense. Review those USC games to remind yourselves of how team defense and staying out of foul trouble can beat a team with much better athleticism.

The contrast is amazing. Washington State’s adusted offensive pace ranks 335th in the nation. North Carolina’s ranks 8th. Only a handful of teams including Bethune Cookman (336th), Delaware State (339th), and the Tortoise (782nd) rank lower.

Run-and-gun teams have problems with the Cougs. The fastest tempos in the Pac-10 belong to (in order): Washington, California, Oregon, Oregon State, and USC. The Cougars are 10-1 against those teams. Husky coach Lorenzo Romar realized this disadvantage two years ago when his team was stomped 75-47 in Pullman; their third straight loss against the Cougs. Now (thankfully) the Dawgs haven’t beaten the Cougs since, but after that day UW has switched to a slower-tempo approach against WSU and the results have been much closer: 65-61, 74-64, 56-52, and 76-73 (OT).

But how does Carolina deal with slow teams? The slowest pace in the ACC belongs to NC State. They were blown out by the heels 84-70 and 93-62. Not a good sign. But NC State isn’t on the same playing field as the Cougars. UNC’s two losses are to Duke and Maryland, two teams that play at a fast pace. That may sound distressing, but UNC hasn’t played a team that plays slow as well as Wazzu. If the heels get frustrated early on by a low-scoring game, the Cougs have a chance. If the Heels reverse it and score in bunches early, watch out.

Offense: North Carolina’s is a juggernaut. #1 in offensive rebound percentage. #2 in raw and adjusted offensive efficiency. They make 52.2% of their 2-point field goals. 38.3% of their threes. 75.4% of their foul shots. No one gets to the free throw line or works as hard under the basket to score points like Tyler Hansbrough. Cowgill will have his hands full, and if Baynes isn’t smart he could get five fouls in 25 seconds. This is where those Yoga classes last summer pay off, Aron: move when you need to and keep your arms straight up. No ticky-tack fouls. And since this isn’t the Pac-10, you will at least have the benefit of competent officiating.

Washington State’s offense should scare Carolina a bit. Why? Because we’re not just about defense. I mentioned that WSU is ninth best in the nation protecting the ball. But we’re also 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and shoot for a higher two-point percentage than UNC (53.4%). The Cougs’ effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the extra value of a three-pointer) is 54.4% or 20th best in the nation. All those low-scoring games are really a result of a decreased number of possessions. Turns out, WSU is a very good offensive team after all.

Defense: The Cougar D ranks 7th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. My biggest concern midway through the year was 3-point defense, but the numbers have become favorable for the Cougars after teams shot the lights out during the four-of-five “losing streak”. WSU allows only 33.2% from beyond the arc. Defense under the basket can survive this game, but Robbie Cowgill needs to have the game of his career. He’s the only one mobile enough to deal with Hansbrough. Baynes is your classic big big guy, and Forrest hasn’t gotten to Robbie’s level defensively yet.

North Carolina’s D is suspect, but still pretty darn good (28th in adjusted efficiency). They rebound very well – not a huge concern for the Cougs as we don’t crash the boards much on offense. However, several 1-and-done possessions are likely for WSU in this matchup, and the Cougs can’t afford many of those. UNC defends the three well (33.0%). The only thing they suffer on is holding opponents to a low total score; but when their offense is going for 90 or 100+, that’s the least of their worries. For WSU to have a chance, Carolina’s defense is going to have to be lax, and our three-point shooters (the great equalizer) need to have a very good night. Duke rained threes in UNC’s last loss this season. The Cougs don’t have to shoot the lights out to win; just avoid too many misses from the arc while playing good defense on the other side.

Game 33: (13) Winthrop vs. (4) Washington State

Here we go.

The night before the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament is like the night before Christmas. Seriously. The best two sports days of the year are upon us, and lucky for me it usually falls over Spring Break. Except for this year. But nevertheless, I will be there to watch most of tomorrow’s games including the Cougs at 4:20 and will be TiVoing the Gonzaga game on Friday that happens to fall during class.

The good news for the Cougs, is that they will be playing in what is likely a friendly arena (the Pepsi Center in Denver), although neutrals in NCAA tournament crowds can often swing towards the underdog if the momentum is there. It will also be a homecoming for two Colorado natives on the WSU roster, Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest. Both went relatively unnoticed nationally out of high school and have had a very positive impact on this rebuilt Cougar program. I think it’s safe to say there are some basketball fans in Boulder who might be a little irked that their school didn’t go after either player.

This game ultimately comes down to defense. For WSU, the ability to defend perimeter shooting. Winthrop is not a team that can threaten WSU on the inside. What they can do, like so many underdogs in the tourney, is catch fire from 3 and steal a win.

For the Eagles, it is a matter of competing with the Cougars on the glass and trying to stop any number of Cougar players from scoring. The problem is that WSU has too many weapons on offense. To be competitive, Winthrop will have to keep the game low-scoring and find just enough offense of their own.

Projected Starters

G Rochestie
G Low
G Weaver
F Cowgill
C Baynes

Line: Washington State (-9)

Why the Eagles might win: Washington State has made five trips to the NCAA tournament. Winthrop has eight appearances in the last ten years. It’s rare when you can say a Big South team has more tourney experience than a BCS conference team. That and Chris Gaynor’s 42.7% 3-point shooting.

Why the Cougs might win: There are no Lopez twins on this team – Winthrop is relatively undersized which should keep Aron Baynes out of foul trouble and give the Cougs a significant rebounding advantage.

X-Factor: Aron Baynes. Remember the Aron Baynes that dominated smaller teams in the Cougs’ non-conference schedule? Well, he’ll have a chance to do it all again. If he limits his fouls on the other end.

Prediction: Washington State 60, Winthrop 50.

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Cougfan has a great piece on Thomas Kelati and his contribution to the Cougar program that you see today. I fear that fans who were unfamiliar with Dick Bennett’s teams, especially the younger students, may not realize the impact Kelati had and what a class guy he was on and off the court. I actually did meet Kelati – he and fellow teammate Shami Gill lived near my girlfriend’s old apartment and one of the two (I think it was Shami) had left his car lights on. We went over to tell him – actually my girlfriend told him while I stood speechless so I wouldn’t blurt out something like “You’re Awesome!!” and embarrass myself. There weren’t many people who viewed Kelati as a celebrity around town, but I was one of them. Nice guys, though – they really set the foundation for what you see today.

Also, Washington loses to Valparaiso in the opening round of the CBI. Yes, this is the same Husky team that beat UCLA by 10 at Hec Ed last month. Your guess is as good as mine.

Game 31: (3) Washington State vs. (6) Oregon

stealthdux.jpgProjected Starters:

G Low
G Weaver
G Rochestie
F Cowgill
C Baynes

Line: Washington State (-3)

Why the Ducks might win: Refer to San Diego’s win over Gonzaga in the WCC championship to see what happens when a desperate team out-hustles a team that is already in the tournament.

Why the Cougs might win: Oregon still lives and dies by the three point shot. They survived last weekend with a 10-19 performance against Arizona. Close out on Porter, Leunen & co., and the Cougars have a good chance.

X-Factor: Daven Harmeling. How much will he play? How much will he shoot? Tony Bennett already is shy about going deep on his bench – will Daven’s injury shorten the reserve list even more?

Prediction: WSU 56, Oregon 55.

Game 30: Washington at (23) Washington State

I just got down to Pullman and I haven’t had a chance to pick up my Evergreen. I hear I made it in the special edition, but just in case here is my whole submission to the paper regarding senior night:

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I came to WSU the same year that Dick and Tony Bennett did. My friends and I stuck with the team for three losing seasons. We saw the unbearable loss to #1 Stanford, read the box score from the 81-29 loss to Oklahoma State, watched the team lose four consecutive games to the huskies, and fall in 14 of their last 16 games to close out the 2006 season.

Then, after a double-digit loss to Utah, something amazing happened. The Cougs overcame a 10 point lead from #18 Gonzaga, and never looked back. There wasn’t any hesitation on my part to rush the court, and when we did three years of bad memories and losses at the buzzer were history. We all know how the rest turned out – the first NCAA tournament in over a decade, the win over Oral Roberts, and the emergence of a team this year that has never dropped out of the Top 25.

I have to thank the team for never giving up. I especially want to thank the members of Bennett’s first recruiting class. They came to Pullman knowing the odds were against them and somehow overcame it all. Kyle Weaver has been incredible to watch and will be an absolute steal for the NBA team that drafts him. Derrick Low had games where he couldn’t miss and sports the best leg tattoo in the nation. Robbie Cowgill makes defense on guys that look twice his size seem effortless. Chris Henry was a force under the basket until injuries held him on to the bench for way too long. Daven Harmeling has been fun to watch, and the silver lining to his injury two years ago is that he’ll be back for one more season.

Most importantly, I want to thank Dick and Tony Bennett. Dick told the ZZU CRU prior to his last game that WSU was his favorite place out of all the universities he had coached in his long career. That to me sums up the Bennett era here. We never gave up on them, and they never gave up on the team or the university. I will always be grateful for that.

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Projected starters (senior night):
G Cross
G Low
G Weaver
F Cowgill
C Henry

Line: Washington State (-9)

Why the Cougs might win: Dick Bennett in attendance. Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low, and Robbie Cowgill’s last home game. It could be a special night.

Why the Huskies might win: “The Randy Green Effect”. The emotions of senior night can work both ways. In Green’s final game at home he was the lone senior. The Cougs came out in green-colored warmups. The stage was set – unfortunately Randy went 0 for 7 from the floor, with 6 of those misses from behind the arc. The Cougs lost 39-37, meaning you could make the argument that if he hit just one of those shots the game would’ve been won by WSU or gone to overtime.

X-Factor: Derrick Low. Could go for 4 points in this game. Could go for 40. It’s anyone’s guess, and here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Prediction: Washington State 69, Washington 54

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Rooting Interests:

Cal at UCLA
Stanford at USC (if the Cougars win)
Arizona State at Oregon State
Arizona at Oregon

Game 28: (22) Washington State at California

Projected Starters:

WSU 21-6 (9-6), 3rd Pac-10
G Rochestie
G Low
G Weaver
F Cowgill
C Baynes

Cal 15-10 (6-8), 7th Pac-10
G Randle
G Christopher
F Anderson
F Boykin
C Hardin

Line: Washington State (-2)

Last meeting: California 69, Washington State 64

Why Cal might win: Ryan Anderson shot 9 for 13 from the field in Cal’s previous win against Wazzu, including 5 of 7 from three-point range.

Why WSU might win: California is 2-5 at home in conference play.

Cougar X-factor: Caleb Forrest. Daven Harmeling is questionable for the game tonight (sprained ankle), which will likely increase the junior forward’s playing time. Forrest was impressive against Arizona last Saturday, scoring 8 points on 2 of 3 shooting in 20 minutes of play.

Prediction: Washington State 64, California 59

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Tonight’s rooting interests:

USC at Arizona – The cougs hold the tiebreaker (if necessary) with the fourth-place trojans, and it’s hard to root for Kevin O’Neill after his postgame comments on Saturday.

Washington at (8) Stanford – The Cardinal can put another nail in the coffin of the huskies’ postseason hopes. However, the cougs still have an outside shot at second place if Stanford loses. Tie goes against the huskies.

(4) UCLA at Arizona State – It would help the entire conference if the Bruins can snatch a #1 seed. ASU can solidify the cougs’ tourney hopes by falling off the bubble.