No one wants to be first. Not after 11 consecutive conference losses. No one in the Pac-10 wants to be the first team to lose to the University of Oregon. The Ducks are 6-17 overall to go with their 0-11 conference mark. But they've played the toughest schedule in the country according to basketball statistical mavens Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin. Though, for the life of me, I can't figure how anyone who has UC Irvine on its schedule can be playing the toughest one in the nation. Oh well. So how do the Cougars avoid being the 1 in a 1-11 record? Read on.
• The first time these two teams met, it took a Pac-10 record 28-for-28 free-throw shooting exhibition for WSU to hold off the Ducks 74-62. Will it take such a performance again? If it does, WSU might be in trouble. In the Cougars last game, a 71-63 loss at Cal, they shot one free throw. If that trend continues tonight then WSU will drop out of a tie with Stanford and Oregon State for seventh in the Pac-10. And its postseason hopes will be dealt a severe blow. So getting to the line at least some tonight seems to be crucial in dealing with the Ducks.
But there's another, much more important trend the Cougars have to halt tonight if they want to win. In the last two-plus games, WSU has given up 20 3-point baskets – in the opponents' last 28 attempts. That 71 percent shooting has to stop, even if Oregon isn't the feared 3-point shooting team it usually is. As the Ducks showed down the stretch in Eugene, if they get going points can be scored in a hurry. And WSU has struggled this year to match firepower with most teams. So it's no wonder a lot of practice time was spent this week defending the line, especially in transition. If Oregon –shooting 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, fifth in the Pac-10 – shoots anything like Cal or Stanford from long range, this one will be a battle.
Funny thing, though. The Ducks are the worst defensive team in the conference – teams are shooting 48.3 percent against them. And they are the only team with a worse number defensively from beyond the arc (39.3 percent) than WSU (36 percent). So the Cougars should get opportunities to put some points on the board from long range as well. Klay Thompson seems to be finding his stroke from there, hitting 15 of his last 25 attempts (60 percent), lifting his season percentage to 41.7 percent, a hair under 50 percent (28 of 57) in conference. That's not too shabby.
• One more thing. The Ducks' defense isn't too scary in the halfcourt, but they do force turnovers (345 this season). If WSU doesn't take care of the ball, like usual, then Oregon will make them pay. Value each possession and good things will happen.
None of this is rocket science, of course. Oregon knows its strengths and weaknesses as does WSU. And they know each others. So it comes down to who will execute better. Like usual. It's a simple game, really.
• One last note. Aron Baynes' parents, Marton and Barbara, are in town to watch their son play in the United States for the first time. Talked with his dad for a long time at practice yesterday and now know more about Australia - and its beers - than I ever thought possible. I know where my next vacation will be.... Speaking of family, former Cougar Kyle Weaver is in the building and just received a huge cheer from the student section. He's here during the NBA All-Star break.
• That's it for now. We will be back at halftime with our thoughts. Till then …