Toughness. That's the theme for Washington State tonight. Can the Cougars be tough enough to take what UCLA dishes out and respond in the right way? It was coach Tony Bennett's main message at practice this week. Were the Cougs listening? Read on.
• Yes, they were listening. But will the toughness appear tonight when the Bruins lock down the offense for two or three possessions in a row? That's yet to be seen. The Cougars have 11 wins this year and, with the possible – and that's a real stretch – exception of Stanford, they really haven't defeated anyone better than them. Pitt, Gonzaga, Baylor, UW, Cal, all teams with RPIs better than WSU's. All chances for WSU to make a statement that will resonate in early March. All squandered.
Another chance looms tonight. This may not be last year's Cougar team, but this certainly isn't last year's UCLA team either. There's a hole in the middle offensively where Kevin Love used to operate. There's a hole out front defensively where Russell Westbrook used to be so disruptive. Sure, Darren Collison is having a conference-MVP-type season (he's in the top 10 in Pac-10 statistics in seven categories) and Josh Shipp has shaken off his shooting slump, but the rest of the Bruins are role players – as illustrated by Michael Roll, who is the ultimate – 3-point-shooting variety – role player. The key guys for UCLA tonight just might be James Keefe, the 6-foot-8 high school teammate of Klay Thompson, and Nikola Dragovic, a 6-9 Serbian friend of Nik Koprivica, who both can shoot the 3-pointer. If they connect, especially Dragovic, who has taken more 3-pointers than any Bruin despite shooting 29 percent from long range, it will stretch the WSU defense from the 4 spot and open more lanes for Collison.
• So which five Cougars will face the Bruins first? We know Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Thompson will be out there. The other two will probably be Caleb Forrest and Marcus Capers, the same lineup that started against Oregon. But that's just an educated guess. Whomever starts, expect their playing time to be dictated by their play on the defensive end – can they keep people in front of them and keep the pack intact? – and how well they take care of the ball. Which is the usual criteria, though tonight, against a team as good and aggressive as 13th-ranked UCLA, it is paramount.
• OK, a couple of notes. When told this week Rochestie has been edged out as the Pac-10 player of the week, Bennett expressed surprise, then, like any coach, turned it to his advantage. The no-respect card was used a few times this week. ... WSU's Pac-10 record 28 of 28 from the free-throw line was only the second-best single-game free throw exhibition I've covered, believe it or not. The NCAA record of 34 of 34 was first achieved in 1981, when UC Irvine and its All-American Kevin Magee did it against the University of Pacific. I was there covering the game for the Orange County Register. Of course, I was about 50 pounds lighter and a heck of a lot smarter. ... The Cougars haven't defeated UCLA here in Pullman since Feb. 6, 1993, when Kelvin Sampson was the WSU coach and Mark Hendrickson was a freshman. The final score was 67-56. The streak has reached 15 games. ... UCLA is the best shooting team in the Pac-10 (49.7). The Cougars have the best field goal percentage defense (36.3). Something's got to give.
• That's it for now. We'll be back at halftime. Till then ...