TEMPE, Ariz. – There are a few challenges awaiting the Washington State men’s basketball team on its Pac-10 swing through Arizona this week.
Some are obvious.
Let’s start with tonight’s opponent, Arizona State. The Sun Devils are 16-3 overall, 5-2 in conference. They’re ranked 14th in the nation. They feature the conference’s best player, sophomore guard James Harden, who leads the Pac-10 in scoring at 22 points per game. They play a hard-to-decipher matchup zone that has given WSU (11-8, 3-4) fits in the past.
Then Saturday WSU heads to Tucson, where an up-and-down Arizona team awaits, led by its big three of center Jordan Hill, forward Chase Budinger and guard Nic Wise. Even last season, when the Cougars were 16-1 and ranked in the top 10, they couldn’t get a win at UA, being dominated 76-64 by the Wildcats.
But put aside the opponents for a second. There’s also the mental state of the Cougars, a team heavy in seniors and freshmen but light in consistency. After failing behind by 15 to UCLA at home last Thursday, they rallied but still fell 61-59 when they couldn’t convert at the end. WSU followed that with a dominating defensive performance against USC, but couldn’t get the ball in the basket and blew a late nine-point lead.
Just how ready are the Cougars to face the Devils, the first challenge in a four-game road swing?
“Doubt will creep in, but we have to keep going,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said this week. “Wins are so valuable. And when you don’t get one … one that slips away, those hurt. They sting.”
But when you’re playing in the Pac-10, you have to heal quickly. Every lost chance at home – WSU is 1-4 at Beasley in Pac-10 play – is followed by a test on the road. ASU has yet to lose at Wells Fargo Arena this season. Though the last time WSU left Pullman, the Cougars experienced success, sweeping the Oregon schools.
“I’m not sure what it is,” said center Aron Baynes, who faces the challenges of ASU’s Jeff Pendergraph and UA’s Hill this week. “Every home game we’ve had this year has been close. Every road game we’ve had this year has been close. It’s just tipped our way on the road a couple times.
“It would be nice to be able to say we had a road advantage, but I don’t think we do. I don’t think anyone in the Pac-10 has an advantage anywhere they are. It’s just so close this year. We just have to go down there and battle.”
The Cougars, who are last in the Pac-10 in points scored and ninth in shooting, still have some weapons to throw at the Sun Devils. At least ASU coach Herb Sendek thinks so.
“Their style of play requires you to have tremendous discipline, have quality possessions time and again,” he said. “They plays as good of team defense as most anybody in the country. And on offense, they’re skilled.”
Bennett may agree about the skilled part, with Baynes and fellow senior Taylor Rochestie combining for more than 24 points per game, but he also knows that offense has been struggling, culminating in the 14-of-51 shooting effort against USC.
“When you’re not scoring, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense,” Bennett said. “I think we’re playing at a pretty high level defensively, but knowing that will be challenged even more so (tonight).
“I don’t know if you can ever play a perfect defensive game, but you can keep shrinking your lapses.”