We're in SeaTac waiting for our flight to the Valley of the Eternal Traffic Jam, and thought we would post our advance that will appear in tomorrow's S-R. We also have some extra comments for you. So, for the unedited advance and more, read on.
• Here is the story ...
TEMPE, Ariz. – There are a few challenges awaiting the Washington State men's basketball team on its Pac-10 swing through Arizona this week.
Some are obvious.
Let's start with tonight's opponent, Arizona State. The Sun Devils are, after all, 16-3, 5-2 in conference. They're ranked 14th in the nation. They feature the conference's best player, sophomore guard James Harden, who leads the Pac-10 in scoring at 22 points a game. They play a hard-to-decipher matchup zone that has given WSU fits in the past.
Then Saturday WSU takes its 11-8 overall and 3-4 Pac-10 record to Tucson, where an up-and-down Arizona team awaits, led by its big three of center Jordan Hill, forward Chase Budinger and guard Nic Wise. Even last season, when the Cougars were 16-1 and ranked in the top 10, they couldn't get a win at UA, dominated 76-64 by the Wildcats.
But put aside the opponents for a second. There's also the mental state of the Cougars themselves, a team heavy in seniors and freshmen but light in consistency. After failing behind by 15 to UCLA at home last Thursday, they rallied but still fell, 61-59, when they couldn't convert at the end. WSU followed that with a dominating defensive performance against USC, but couldn't get the ball in the basket and blew a late nine-point lead.
Just how ready are they to face the Devils, the first challenge in a four-game road swing?
"Doubt will creep in," WSU coach Tony Bennett admitted this week, "but we have to keep going. Wins are so valuable. And when you don't get one ... one that slips away, those hurt. They sting."
But when you're playing in the Pac-10, you have to heal quickly. Every lost chance at home – WSU is 1-4 at Beasley in Pac-10 play – is followed by a test on the road – ASU has yet to lose at Wells Fargo Arena this season. Though the last time WSU left Pullman, the Cougars experienced success, sweeping the Oregon schools.
"I'm not sure what it is," said center Aron Baynes, who faces the challenges of ASU's Jeff Pendergraph and UA's Jordan Hill this week. "Every home game we've had this year has been close. Every road game we've had this year has been close. It's just tipped our way on the road a couple times.
"It would be nice to be able to say we had a road advantage but I don't think we do. I don't think anyone in the Pac-10 has an advantage anywhere they are. It's just so close this year. We just have to go down there and battle."
The Cougars, who are last in the Pac-10 in scoring and ninth in shooting, still have some weapons to throw at the Devils. At least ASU coach Herb Sendek thinks so.
"Their style of play requires you to have tremendous discipline, have quality possessions time and again," he said. "They plays as good of team defense as most anybody in the country. And on offense, they're skilled."
Bennett may agree about the skilled part, with Baynes and fellow senior Taylor Rochestie combining for more than 24 points a game, but he also knows that offense has been struggling, culminating in the 14-of-51 shooting effort vs. USC.
"When you're not scoring, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense," Bennett said. "I think we're playing at a pretty high level defensively, but knowing that will be challenged even more so this Thursday.
"I don't know if you can ever play a perfect defensive game, but you can keep shrinking your lapses."
NOTES: Pendergraph and Hill will test Baynes and the 6-foot-10 senior knows it. "I've played against Pendergraph since I've been here and it's always been a fun matchup," Baynes said. "And Jordan Hill is playing extremely well right now. I can't wait to get down there and meet them on their turf and have a little bit of fun." ... Sendek has 299 wins as a college coach. ... The Sun Devils may be the best college basketball team in Arizona, but they aren't the biggest sports story. That would be the Cardinals, who play in their first Super Bowl on Sunday. "The Cardinals have generated a lot of excitement in the Valley as you would expect with a team going to the Super Bowl," Sendek conceded. ... The Sun Devils zone stymied the Cougars in Tempe last year, but WSU was able to pull out a 56-55 win, though it blew almost all of a late seven-point lead. "In some ways (their defense is) similar to ours," Bennett said, "where they really want to take away the lanes. With zone principles they contest shooters but limit lane touches, penetration. It's a defense that's stymied a lot of teams. Even though we've had success, we've struggled to get good shots." ... Before Sendek arrived at ASU from North Carolina State, no one in the Pac-10 played zone defense on a consistent basis. Now three teams – ASU, Arizona and Oregon State – do. "Before Coach Sendek came in everybody was man-to-man," Bennet said. "These three teams are playing it 40 minutes, 90 to 95 percent of the game. That's a little unique. I've been here six years and it's changed."
• And here are some extra comments ...
Bennett on ASU's offense, other than Harden: "They can really stretch you out. ... They have guys who can really make plays when it's close."
On Harden: "Very rarely do you see him force the action. He just lets it come."
On the three teams in the Pac-10 which play zone defense: "They are all different zones. You have to attack them a little differently."
Baynes on playing Pendergraph and Hill: "Hill has some quickness to go with his size and length and that's a little bit different. They are both real athletic guys (who) have been leading their teams for a couple years now. They're both really experienced."
• That's it for this afternoon. If anything breaks, I'll post it. But we'll be back for sure in the morning. Till then ...