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Cougs display flashes of recent elite teams

Six-foot-8 DeAngelo Casto is WSU’s main presence inside.  (FILE)
Six-foot-8 DeAngelo Casto is WSU’s main presence inside. (FILE)

Offense, defense show marked improvement

PULLMAN – Going into tonight’s matchup with Texas-Pan American in the Spokane Arena, it can be said Washington State has been here before.

And you would have more than one meaning.

In a physical sense, the Cougars have played in the Arena every year except one since 1996, when they lost 78-73 to defending national champion UCLA. That game was played before a packed, boisterous crowd that almost willed WSU to an upset.

But in recent years, the interest has waned, with the prime example the Cougar Hispanic College Fund Challenge in 2007 when a 26-win WSU team played three games in front of crowds that combined for 11,618 – barely over the Arena’s capacity.

Last year’s 75-68 win over the Air Force Academy was witnessed by a crowd generously listed at 7,024, a number WSU coach Ken Bone would love to surpass tonight.

“I would love to see our WSU fans out here,” he said Thursday. “We’ve got a great team, fun to watch and it’s a great opportunity for people in the Spokane area to check us out.”

After playing in the Arena last year, the Cougars played to sellout crowds in Tri-Cities and Seattle, part of a 10-2 nonconference record.

And that brings another meaning to the term.

Last season, WSU started out 6-1, just as the Cougars are today. It marks the fifth consecutive year the Cougars have won at least six times in their first seven games.

But this year’s Cougars squad showed in Wednesday night’s 81-59 demolishing of Gonzaga it has more in common with the 26-win teams from four and five years ago than it has with last year’s 16-15, Pac-10 cellar-dwellers.

It starts on the defensive end, where WSU is getting the similar results as those Tony Bennett teams with a dissimilar strategy.

“That’s a big difference between this year and last year,” WSU junior Klay Thompson said. “We could score last year, but our defense was a little shaky. This year I think we’re really solid defensively. … If we keep doing that, we can play with anybody.”

Like those 26-win squads, the Cougars are harassing opponents into poor shooting nights. WSU leads the Pac-10 in shooting percentage defense (36.8 percent) and scoring defense (57 points per game). Those numbers rank 14th and 17th, respectively, in the nation.

But unlike those teams, WSU is doing it with a mixture of zone and man defenses, showing a flexibility to adjust to the opponent, and to its own weaknesses.

One that seems glaring on the surface is size. Other than 6-foot-8 DeAngelo Casto, the Cougars don’t have much in the way of a physical presence inside.

So Bone and his staff have increased the ball pressure – WSU forced 25 turnovers Wednesday and averages 18.3 per game – and solidified the back line with an tactic straight from “Hoosiers:” The Cougars take charges, six against GU and at least one or two every game.

Defense isn’t the only area in which this 6-1 team is better than last year’s. If Thompson, who is averaging 21.6 points per game, wasn’t making shots last season, WSU had few options.

This year, two newcomers – junior college transfer Faisal Aden and freshman Patrick Simon – have added enough firepower to allow WSU to weather point guard Reggie Moore’s wrist injury that cost him the first five games and still seems to be limiting his production.

Aden is averaging 18.0 and Simon 7.0, but more important, both shoot well enough that helping off Thompson isn’t a simple decision. Add in the fact Thompson has improved his ability to drive and finish – his left hand was almost a spectator last year – and WSU’s offense is averaging 78.1 points per game.

When Gonzaga crawled back into the game by switching screens, Thompson began attacking the rim.

“Gonzaga did a nice job of adjusting to (the pick-and-pop attack), but it’s a give and take,” Bone said. “They switched it and stopped us from getting the pick-and-pop, but there were opportunities for us to drive the mismatch.”

And that got Thompson started.

“After I hit those layups (to open the second half) and I was getting to the basket pretty easy, I was in a great rhythm,” he said, “because when you see the ball go in like that, any scorer is going to feel good about themselves and hunt their shot.”

His offensive versatility was matched by the rest of his game, with a stat line – six rebounds, six assists, seven steals and a block – that brought back memories of a guy who was here before, Kyle Weaver.