TEMPE, Ariz. – Royce Woolridge used to sit in Wells Fargo Arena as a youngster, middle school-aged but old enough to appreciate the skills of former Arizona State star Ike Diogu.
A Phoenix native, Woolridge has always been a Sun Devils fan. He was when he committed to Kansas as a high-school sophomore, and he still is now that he’s coming into his own as one of Washington State’s most legitimate scoring threats.
Tonight he’ll take a break from his fandom, but not from the scoring, WSU hopes. The Cougars take on the NCAA tournament-hopeful Sun Devils at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“A lot of friends go to ASU,” said Woolridge, who played high-school ball at Sunnyslope High in Phoenix. “So I’ll have like 30 people there for me.”
Woolridge’s following might grow on its own if he continues scoring the way he did against Oregon on Saturday. The sophomore combo guard scored a career-high 36 points against the Ducks – the highest point total by a Pac-12 player this season – and is averaging 12.6 points per game in conference games.
It’s fitting that he now heads back to his hometown with more momentum as he’s had this season, along with a WSU (11-15, 2-11 Pac-12) team desperate to snap a 6-game losing streak and register its first win this month.
Woolridge figures he’ll match up against ASU freshman guard Jahii Carson at some point. Carson, a native of nearby Mesa, Ariz., and a strong candidate for the conference’s Freshman of the Year award, is fourth in the conference in scoring and third in assists.
Woolridge said he’s been playing against Carson since the age of 12. The quick, shifty point guard had his way with the Cougars back on Jan. 31, scoring 25 points including a late layup that iced a 63-59 victory.
WSU tried to defend Carson by giving him space on the perimeter – he shoots just 30 percent from 3-point range – but he knocked down a number of lengthy jump shots (and a pair of 3s) to force the Cougars out of their game plan.
“I think a number of teams have found out that he’s a good enough shooter, you have to respect his shot,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “And yet if you get up in him he’s a great driver. He can score, he can deliver the ball to other guys. He’s really good on the on-ball, so he’s a hard guy to defend. I’m not sure we know any more now than we did three weeks ago,” Bone said. “He’s still really good.”
Woolridge is getting better, too. Bone originally thought Woolridge might be the team’s primary point guard, though senior Mike Ladd took over those duties earlier in the season. With Ladd out with a knee injury the last two games – and likely again tonight – Woolridge has handled the ball a little bit more, and has increased his aggression, too.
And while that Jan. 31 loss to ASU (19-7, 8-5) was the start of WSU’s current six-game skid, it was also the start of a six-game double-figure scoring streak for Woolridge. He’s averaged 17 points since that game, and has made 52.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in that span.
“We’ve needed it more as of late,” Bone said of Woolridge’s scoring, “so we’ve tried to create situations where he has opportunities to be more aggressive to make plays.”
“At the beginning of the year it was more just figure out what my role is,” Woolridge said. “But as the year’s gone on, he’s wanted me to be more aggressive because when we play passive we don’t play as well.”
The Cougars’ 11 Pac-12 losses have come by an average of 7.6 points, with five of them being decided by five points or fewer.
Their last win was a 71-68 victory at Oregon State on Jan. 26.