PULLMAN – Typically in the past, when the Washington State Cougars have traveled to Spokane to play a team this stout on defense, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been the ones sitting on the other bench.
Mark Few’s club will be nowhere in sight Wednesday at the Spokane Arena, but expect the Cougars to find it just as difficult – if not more so – to put the ball in the hoop when they tip off with Kansas State at 8 p.m. Wednesday’s game, which will be televised on ESPN2, is the second in as many years between the Cougars and Wildcats. The nonconference foes played a “neutral site” game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, last year.
In that game, KSU pulled away in the second half to grab a 70-56 win. The Wildcats don’t appear any less formidable in Bruce Weber’s sixth season than they did in his fifth.
At 9-2, KSU could be the most talented team the Cougars have seen during the nonconference season. All the evidence suggests they’ll certainly be the toughest on which to score.
“They play extremely hard, they can shoot the ball, they’re awesome in transition and they’ll be the best defensive team we’ve played against,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said.
That means the Cougars might be hard-pressed to hit their 76 points-per-game quota against a KSU team that ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense (62 ppg allowed) and 27th in field-goal percentage defense (38.4). In six of their nine wins this year, the Wildcats have held the opponent to less than 60 points and on two other occasions, the opponent failed to crack 70.
Vanderbilt has been the only opponent to reach its season scoring average against KSU.
“They never take a play off on defense. They’re always in the right spots,” WSU forward Jeff Pollard said. “And even if they are in the wrong spots or they get screwed up on defense, they just give so much effort that it makes up for those mistakes.”
Pollard and starting guard Viont’e Daniels were shelved for the 2016 meeting because of injury/illness. Earlier the same day, the Cougars announced that guard Derrien King was parting ways with the basketball program.
That shortened Kent’s bench to three players, including Steven Shpreyregin, a walk-on who made his WSU debut in Kansas City and logged 10 minutes. The Cougars were within two points of the Wildcats at halftime, but KSU throttled WSU in the second half and led by as many as 19 in the final 2 minutes.
WSU’s fleet of reserves is much deeper this season and it’s also been more productive. The bench scores 26.7 ppg as opposed to 13.1 in 2016-17. Shpreyregin is the only Cougar in danger of missing out on Wednesday’s game.
Kansas State employs a hefty front line that’s led by 6-foot-10 junior forward Kevin Wade, who’s good for 13.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
“He plays tough, he’s smart,” Kent said. “He’s a guy again that’s going to demand you to be present with him at all times and really play just as hard or if not harder than he does.”
He’s just one of four double-digit scorers for Weber, who’s also expected to start Kamau Stokes (14.6 ppg), Barry Brown Jr. (13.6), Xavier Sneed (12.5) and Makol Mawien. Sneed stands 6-5 while Mawien checks in at 6-9.
The Wildcats play big as well – befitting a team that averages taller than 6-7 across its front line.
Recalling last year’s game, Pollard said, “It was kind of one of those, the gloves are off and it’s just going to be a dogfight. So I’m looking forward to it again this year.”
Perhaps not as much as WSU’s second-year president. It’s not lost on the Cougars that they’re facing Kirk Schulz’s old school. Schulz spent seven years as the president at KSU before accepting the same job in Pullman on March 25, 2016.
“I think that brings a lot more will for us to want to win,” forward Drick Bernstine said. “I think we’re all going to be ready for the game.”
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