Contain James Harden (at right above). Make shots from outside. In a nutshell, those are the two most important assignments for Washington State tonight if the Cougars want to upset the 14th-ranked Sun Devils. And, at least at the start, they both may be incumbent on one senior. Read on.
• There are other priorities, of course, and we'll get into those in a bit. But the two we outlined on the front page are the key ones. And WSU coach Tony Bennett has decided to entrust the first part – containing James Harden – to Daven Harmeling. The 6-foot-7 senior will start tonight and matchup with Arizona State's all-everything sophomore. At 6-5 and 218 pounds, Harden usually uses his size to overpower guards assigned to shadow him. But he shouldn't be able to do that to Harmeling. Though his quickness will be a test for the senior from Colorado, making only his second Pac-10 start this season. My guess is Harmeling will do what ever it takes to keep Harden in front of him, which may mean giving up a jumper now and then. If Harden is hitting, watch out. The next Cougar in line is Nik Koprivica, who is a little quicker than Harmeling, though an inch shorter.
But guarding Harden is only one of Harmeling's tasks tonight. Bennett has worked with him this week and is counting on Harmeling's 3-pointer reappearing against the ASU zone. As the Cougars have shown lately, they can use offense no matter the source, and they haven't had much of it from Harmeling (10 points) since Pac-10 play began. If Harmeling's shot does come back tonight, then the WSU offense becomes a little more potent. And, against a team and a place where close games are the norm, it just might be enough.
• But there's more. Aron Baynes has to stay out of foul trouble and at least get a draw with Jeff Pendergraph (coming in they are close statistically), one of the more proficient centers in the Pac-10 at getting position and drawing fouls. Klay Thompson can't lose focus on defense and leave the nation's best – by percentage, which is 48.6 – 3-point shooter, Rihards Kuksiks, open at any time. And the rest of the Cougars have to do the usual, execute on offense and play team defense.
All simple looking assignments, on the screen. But they will all take exceptional effort tonight. And, with the game on the road, even playing a near-perfect game will not ensure the Cougars anything. I'm sure, however, Bennett will take a near-perfect game, as long as the stretches that aren't keep shrinking.
• We'll be back at halftime with our usual summary and a spot for your comments. Till then ...