SEATTLE – A preseason glance at the Washington State men’s basketball roster would have likely yielded the assumption that the Cougars were going to be a team that relied on its backcourt.
WSU’s leading returning scorer coming into the year was a guard, as was its second, third and fourth returning point-scorers. In fact, 82 percent of WSU’s returning scoring came courtesy of backcourt players.
But WSU has become increasingly defined by good play from its forwards this season and the Cougars have in turn improved relative to their peers.
Coach Ernie Kent calls Josh Hawkinson “one of the best power forwards in the country,” and the statistics show that he’s at least been one of the most effective big men in the conference.
He has nine double-doubles in 14 games and averages 15.5 points and 11 rebounds per game. The second figure leads the Pac-12 and is No. 6 nationally, and no other Division I player collects as many defensive boards per game.
Jordan Railey struggled early in the season but has been one of WSU’s most dynamic players in the past four games, averaging 12 ppg and scoring a career-high 17 in WSU’s win at California. The Cougars (7-7, 1-1 Pac-12) have gone 3-1 in that stretch.
In the Cal game, the Cougars consistently looked to Railey in the post, showing newfound confidence in his ability to either score or find an open player cutting to the basket or the corners.
“I definitely make more looks to Jordan now knowing we’re going to get more buckets out of him,” said point guard Ny Redding.
Railey’s new inside presence has made it easier for Hawkinson to sustain his scoring productivity by opening up the floor on offense, as have the contributions of forward Brett Boese, who is making 42 percent of his 3-point attempts.
“Oh, it makes it a lot easier,” Hawkinson said of his teammates’ improvements. “It just opens up the court a lot more.”
Statistically, WSU has one of the better frontcourts in the Pac-12. Against Washington (11-3, 0-2), the Cougars will have a chance to prove it.
Robert Upshaw has emerged as one of the country’s best shot-blockers in his first season at UW after transferring from Fresno State. He’s already got 64 rejections in 14 games and needs just three against the Cougars to set the UW single-season record.
He will probably get them. Upshaw doesn’t start and plays just 22.7 minutes per game, but still averages 4.6 blocked shots. According to the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings site at Kenpom.com, the 7-footer blocks 17.4 percent of opponent’s two-point attempts when he’s on the floor, the highest mark in the country.
With Upshaw inside the Huskies have improved drastically on defense. A season ago, the Huskies were the worst in the conference in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent. This season no Pac-12 team has been stingier than the Huskies, who are holding opponents to just 35 percent.
If Upshaw and the Huskies can slow down WSU’s post game it will make things a lot tougher on the Cougars’ guards, who would once again have to carry the team. But if the Cougars can have success down low in this rivalry game, they can probably do it against anybody.
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