Some questions for you. Is there a hotter team on the West Coast than Washington State. Is this a make-or-break game for said Cougars? What do they need to do to make a win happen? We're going to attempt to answer the final question. Read on.
• UPDATE: The winner of the WSU/UCLA game will face USC in Friday's late semifinal. The Trojans held off Cal, 79-75, behind the 21 points and 16 rebounds of Taj Gibson. After trailing by 18 in the first half, the Bears tied it at 75 with less than 20 seconds left. But Daniel Hackett was fouled with 3.2 seconds left and hit both free throws an the Trojans survived. USC had an almost-unbelievable 53-27 rebound edge.
• The first game between WSU and UCLA in Pullman was the type of game both coaches like. It was a defensive battle with both teams getting offensive contributions from surprising sources: for UCLA Nikola Dragovic; for WSU Caleb Forrest. Because Dragovic's shots came from beyond the arc (for the most part) and Forrest from within (for the most part), the Bruins had an edge – and a two-point win. But remember, WSU had the ball and a chance to tie as time ran out and Taylor Rochestie missed Forrest open under the hoop on an in-bounds play.
The second game between WSU and UCLA in Los Angeles was the type of game both coaches despise. It was an offensive explosion with both teams getting contributions from by now expected sources, Dragovic and Forrest. Because no one could match the will and energy of Rochestie – or his 33 points – the Cougars earned the one-point win. But remember, UCLA's Josh Shipp missed a point-blank layup after a late steal.
• So only a point here or there has separated these teams after 80 minutes of basketball. But neither is the same team they were in either of the meetings. The differences between then and now might just make the difference tonight.
The biggest difference for the Bruins has been the recent play of Shipp. In the four games since he had 14 points against WSU (on 5 of 11 shooting), he's scored 20 or more three times. He's hit 35 of 57 shots, including 14 of 24 from 3-point range. He's keyed the 15th-ranked Bruins to four consecutive wins, scoring career highs (27 then 28) in the last two. He gives UCLA another outside threat to go with Dragovic (against the Cougars at least), something they didn't have in Pullman or LA. He'll be Klay Thompson's responsibility tonight, and the freshman needs to use his length to limit Shipp's good looks. If Shipp can make tough shots, then so be it.
The Cougars are different as well. The freshmen Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto are playing better on both ends. The most improvement has come on the offensive end, which is helpful, but more than anything it allows them to stay on the court longer, where their defensive prowess makes WSU a tougher team to score upon. Capers will be charged with harassing Darren Collison as he initiates the Bruin offense, and if such pressure wears on Collison and his bruised tailbone, that's a plus for WSU. Casto will be charged with adding his usual energy and shot-blocking ability, but maybe even more importantly, he attacks the ball screens so aggressively he can disrupt an offense or, if split, open a lane to the hole. The former would be WSU's preferred result, of course.
• There are other keys as well. I'm not a big believer in revenge as a motivating factor, but I do believe the Cougars will have to survive an early onslaught from UCLA. The Bruins are 31-1 the last four years on first game's of Pac-10 weekend series, which means they are always well prepared when Ben Howland has time - and he's had a week. ... Transition defense is a must, but that's usually the case. ... Toughness against UCLA's pressure is another got-to-have, especially considering how these games are being officiated. The term "let-them-play" just isn't descriptive enough. These Pac-10 Tournament games are Darwinian. Only the strong survive. And UCLA will test WSU's strength, physical and mental. Five weeks ago, the Cougars might have been at a disadvantage in this type of contest. Now I'm not so sure. They have proven their toughness over and over. Can they prove it one more night? The answer might just decide what the next couple weeks hold.
• That's it for the pre-game post. We'll be back at halftime. Until then …