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Washington State Cougars

by Rob Carpentier | January 23rd, 2007

Team Personality: Defense and precision…defense and precision…(say it with me)…defense and precision. An argument can be made that Washington State plays the toughest defense in the PAC-10, which means they play some of the best defense in the country. First-year coach Tony Bennett has continued his father’s tradition of strong, fundamental help-side defense that forces offenses to work very hard to get an open look. Offensively, the Cougars are precise with their cutting and passing. While Wazzu played a very deliberate style under Tony’s father, Dick Bennett, typically getting close to violating the shot clock on most possessions, Tony has opened the offense up. Now the Cougars take the first good shot rather than the first good shot with fewer than 15 seconds left on the shot clock. This team, like its coach, is tough as nails.

Biggest Games: The Cougars find themselves a relatively surprising 5-2 in the PAC-10. They have virtually assured themselves an NCAA berth and are now really playing for both the PAC-10 title and seeding come March. As such, they have four games that will probably determine their fate. The final two weeks of the regular season have Wazzu traveling to Oregon and Oregon State and then hosting the LA schools. UCLA in particular has had Washington State’s number recently, winning four close games out of five in the past two seasons. Upsetting the Bruins would go a long way to getting Wazzu close to the two goals of a conference title and high NCAA seed.

Has to be on the Floor: Derrick Low. The 6’1’’ junior was thought to be the returning starting point guard for the Cougars, but in a stroke of genius, Bennett immediately moved him to the off-guard spot. There, Low has flourished. He leads the team in scoring and is a threat to shoot from deep and drive to the basket. He’s deceptively quick and strong for his size, making him a better than average defender. And just when you think you’ve got him trapped, Low has the vision to find the open man for an easy bucket. When Low has been off the floor, the Cougars offense stagnates.

Crunchtime Crutch: This is not a particularly deep team nor is it a very athletic one. They have to be able to impose their style of play on the opposition because it’s really the only style they can find success with. If Wazzu faces a more athletic team that can remain patient and focus on defense (UCLA and possibly USC) like they do, then the Cougars are in trouble. Other than that, they have been able to force opponents to play at their pace; grind it out. If the Cougars get in foul trouble, particularly if Low or 6’5’’ shooting guard Kyle Weaver has to sit for long spells, then this team is in deep trouble.

Last Shot: Low takes most of the shots, but Weaver is the man who has hit some big shots at the end. He’s the most athletic player that Wazzu usually has on the floor and he has the demeanor of a leader. The team feeds off of him. This is quite a turnaround for a player who missed an uncontested bunny at the buzzer last season at Pauley Pavilion that would have sent the game against UCLA into overtime. Now he demands the ball in crunch time and he produces. Just ask USC.

Straw that Stirs the Drink:
It has to be Weaver. He has played all three wing/guard positions this season and has done well at all of them. He plays superior defense and he has enough offense to get to the bucket or hit the outside shot. Weaver leads the team in rebounding and assists and is second in scoring. He is also the first Cougar in a number of years to achieve a triple-double.

Impact Newcomer:
He has those games where he simply disappears, but sophomore forward Daven Harmeling was the key to wins over Gonzaga and Arizona. Harmeling missed almost all of his freshman year due to injury and he still has to work on his consistency, but when he’s on from behind the arc he’s almost perfect. Runner-up goes to freshman guard Nikola Koprivica. He hasn’t scored much, but he’s been huge in spots for the Cougars, allowing Bennett to feel confident resting either Low or Weaver for short periods of time. Koprivica is big and—being a typical European player—has basketball smarts.

Potential Pitfall: Depth. As stated above, if Low or Weaver is out for extended periods, this team suffers greatly on the offensive end. The presence of junior forward Robbie Cowgill, who does a lot of the dirty work under the basket, is also critical. Although Australian post player Aron Baynes and senior Ivory Clark can also bang, they don’t have Cowgill’s game acumen or length. The Cougars have almost no offense coming off the bench. Junior college transfer Mac Hopson was starting at the point earlier in the year, but Bennett seems to have lost confidence in him and his playing time has gone down precipitously.

How to reach the Sweet Sixteen: This is a tough team to play, but Wazzu can be beat by athletic teams that are willing to play tough and focused defense for at least 20 seconds per possession. The Cougars are pretty consistent so the big issue for them would be match-ups. They probably don’t want to play a team from the Missouri Valley in the first or second round because the Valley has some athletes and they focus on defense, and a team like Pitt or even Duke will give them trouble because they have more talented players that do the same thing the Cougars do. Make no mistake, though; this team is for real. Chances are that whoever plays Wazzu in the tournament, especially in the second round, will overlook them because they aren’t a “name” team.

–Robert Carpentier

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