It is interesting to look at the Pac-10 basketball standings and see Washington State leading the way as the nonconference schedule winds down. Sure, WSU's 9-2 mark has been built, in part, by the strength of the opponents. But that's only a part. And, after the way the Cougars played Saturday, it seems to be even a smaller part. Read on for more thoughts on that and the win over Portland State in the Tri-Cities.
• Washington State: Before this season's games began, there was a consensus about the Cougars. They had some talent, but as a real young team playing for a new coaching staff, this could be a tough season. It still may be, but the showing in the nonconference thus far – LSU in Seattle on Tuesday night is the final non-Pac-10 game – and the relative weakness of the conference makes that less of a possibility than what seemed to be the case two months ago. The Cougars have two losses, both on the road against top 25 schools (though GU might exit the standings after this weekend). The wins have come against middle range teams, though USD, Nicholls State, Portland State and Idaho may be better than their current rankings indicate. Heck, even IUPFW just put up a battle at Michigan State, finally losing by 22, which compares favorably to the 19-point defeat WSU hung on the Mastodons. OK, I know comparative scores are barnyard refuse, but I'm using it to illustrate the nonconference schedule may not have been as weak as we all thought. Of course, LSU, which just edged Nicholls State by three at home I might add, may come into the Key Arena and hand the Cougars a loss, sending everyone into a pre-Christmas funk, but I doubt it. When WSU plays like it did Saturday, shooting well, hustling for loose balls, defending with a focus and resolve, the Cougars can compete with just about anyone. And certainly anyone left on their schedule. ... Now back to last night's game. The Cougar defensive game plan, a result of assistant coach Curtis Allen's meticulous scout – Allen had a big advantage, having been coach Ken Bone's assistant the past couple years at PSU – worked to near perfection. As Bone said, the idea was to stop the 3-point attack. "They are such a prolific shooting team," he said. "They have so many great shooters on that team that, if you don't switch the screens, it's that much more difficult, we felt, to get on them, get a hand up." It also doesn't hurt that big guys like DeAngelo Casto and Abe Lodwick got down into a defensive stance and stayed with the PSU guards as they came off the screen, making it nearly impossible for them to get a step to the hoop. And when they did, the Cougar defense was in position to help. ... Speaking of Casto, there was a play late in the first half I asked Bone about. The ball was knocked loose on the WSU end. Casto and PSU's Julius Thomas, both big, strong post players, dove for the ball. Casto wrestled it free and found Reggie Moore on the left wing. Moore skipped a pass to Klay Thompson on the opposite wing and Thompson knocked down the 3. "It was exactly the way it should be," Bone said, obviously pleased about the play. "Just two workhorses, strong, aggressive, tenacious players and here they are, both diving for a loose ball and we were fortunate to come up with it. Those two guys, that's just how they play. And when you make plays like that, those are plays winning teams make." ... On offense, the Cougars got more than a dozen open looks just by setting a ball screen and the screener relocating to the arc. "It's a very similar system," Bone said. "They do the same thing. Phil Nelson, that's how he gets a lot of his 3s, picking and popping. It's no different than what they do or what they've done the past few years. It just happened tonight that we made shots." And WSU defending it by switching screens instead of trying to fight through, as Portland State did. One WSU player described PSU's defense of the ball screen as "terrible." Seems like an apt description.
• Here are some more comments from Bone and a few players ...
• Bone on Nik Koprivica's game: "Nik has worked really hard at Washington State and it's not always been appreciated. He's trying to have the best senior year he can without being selfish, I mean here's a guy who doesn't start, comes in, puts in 12, 13 minutes a game and yet continues to do a good job. I was really pleased to see him get rewarded by getting some great looks and then putting them down."
• Bone on playing in the Tri-Cities: "The reality of it is we would not be able to get a great crowd in Pullman with the students gone. So to be able to come to somewhere like Kennewick and the place is packed and the people really, really appreciate us being here, I thought it was exciting." As an aside, you can expect the game in Kennewick to be repeated in the future.
• Bone on what looked to be some comments Dominic Waters had toward him midway through the first half: "If he did (say something), I didn't hear it. You know, Dom's a real competitor and he might have said something I don't know. I think if he said something, it was probably like 'I miss you coach.' But I didn't quite hear, so I'm not sure."
• Thompson on the defense: "We tried to make them put it on the floor and finish at the rim rather than just get open 3-point looks."
• Thompson on the late first-half run: "It was really important. It gave us a pretty good lead, but we weren't content with that."
• Koprivica on his open looks: "We tried to set as many ball screens as we can because they are not going to defend it really well. Those guys were finding (me), I was just wide open. I had to knock them down."
• Moore on setting career highs in assists two consecutive games: "I'm starting to realize where guys are on the court as we play together. Certain guys like to go to certain spots and certain guys like to catch the ball certain ways."
• Now on to the links. You can read my game story here and the version we posted last night here. ... How about USC's rout of No. 9 Tennessee? Where did that come from? ... More on the game from freelancer Howie Stalwick in this story from the Tacoma News Tribune and this piece from the Oregonian's Jim Beseda. ... My women's game story is also available in a little longer version here. ... There have been some questions about Anthony Brown. The Shadle Park High graduate wasn't part of the 13-person travel squad to Spokane or Tri-Cities (if you're wondering, because there were more than 13 players on the bench, some guys made their own way to the venue). The number is university mandated (the NCAA allows 15) to save money. Brown's not redshirting and has been a participant in every practice I've seen this year.
• Around the Pac-10: It was a much better day for the conference, topped by USC's victory. ... But Washington's win over a Portland team that is expected to challenge Gonzaga in the WCC was also impressive. ... Oregon finally earned a victory over Oakland. ... The Beavers got past Mississippi Valley State at home, but it wasn't impressive. ... Either is UCLA's 3-7 record, the worst since before John Wooden. The Bruins lost to Notre Dame. ... ASU continued to play well, holding off a solid San Diego State team. ... Former WSU athletic director Jim Livengood looks back at his tenure in Arizona.
• That's all for this morning. We'll be back when events warrant. Until then …