There's a hard-to-shake image from the first game between WSU and Cal, that the Bears won 57-50 in Pullman. It's immortalized (OK, that's a little too much hyperbole) by the picture I ran with this morning's post. Patrick Christopher cutting back door, rising above Nik Koprivica and Caleb Forrest and dunking the Cougars' comeback hopes. So what does WSU have to do tonight to ensure such an outcome doesn't happen again? Read on.
• If you remember the first game, you might recall it was a back-and-forth affair for the first half, with the Bears taking a one-point lead into the locker room. You might also remember Jamal Boykin, Cal's junior forward, actually taking over for a while early in the second half as the Bears built a six-point lead with 14 minutes left. Then you might recall Christopher, who just took the court as I write this almost two hours before game time, being nearly unstoppable for a while, quieting the Friel Court crowd en route to 22 points. You might even remember the Cougars falling behind by as many as nine, the last time with 5 minutes left. But I'm sure you recall the furious comeback, the missed opportunities and the flame-out down the stretch after Christopher's dunk.
What you might not remember is WSU's game plan, one the Cougars will use again tonight but hope to execute a hair better. See, Cal's three best offensive threats are all guards: Christopher, Theo Robertson and, most-of-all, 5-foot-10 – ya, right; I'm 5-10 and I'm taller than … – Jerome Randle. The Cougar bigs made sure to help even more than usual when the trio came off screens, forcing Randle and Robertson especially, to pass up shots and make passes. It worked to perfection in the first half, but Boykin made them pay in the second. And, of course, Christopher just rose up every one and scored.
• But the defense wasn't that bad. The Bears scored just 57 points, which is almost 20 points under their average. No, the problem was WSU couldn't score. Aron Baynes, pushed around all night by the undersized Cal posts as he rose up to shoot, was just 2 of 9. Klay Thompson (14) and Taylor Rochestie (19) got their points, but this was the game the bench didn't score and the two other starters – Koprivica and Forrest – combined for nine points. For the Cougars to win tonight, Baynes has to have at least 15 and someone surprising – Forrest, Casto, Harmeling, Koprivica? – has to chip in with more than a handful. Will it happen? Maybe. We know Forrest can have a dozen if he's on, that Harmeling's shot is coming around, that Casto can add a post move or two to a couple putbacks. For WSU to win, it will have to.
• A couple more notes. Koprivica and Forrest will probably start, with Koprivica, whose recent defense has earned praise from Tony Bennett, on Christopher, a task Thompson had in Pullman – and performed well for a half. ... The Cougars didn't do their walk-through at Haas. They did it on the basketball court at the hotel instead. ... Bennett and radio voice Bud Nameck went up to Sacramento last night and watched Xavier Thames play. Thanks to the Cougars late practice and traffic, they saw the second half.
• That's it for now. We'll be back at halftime with our usual post. Till then …