Washington State is already in Spokane and going through practice tonight at the Spokane Arena. Tomorrow the Cougars will host Texas-Pan American before taking more than a week off for finals. The next game on the schedule is Santa Clara on Dec. 19 before the trip to Hawaii – without yours truly. Read on for more on tomorrow night's game. But before you do that, check out this football link. ...
• Our advance of tomorrow's game in Spokane covers three areas, including the Cougars history of playing in the Arena. We also look at how they have improved this year defensively, and how the offense is more diversified this season. ...
PULLMAN – Going into tonight's matchup with Texas-Pan American in the Spokane Arena, it can be said Washington State has been here before.
And you would have more than one meaning.
In a physical sense, the Cougars have played in the Arena every year except one since 1996 – a tight, 78-73 loss to defending national champion UCLA. That game was played before a packed, boisterous crowd that almost willed WSU to an upset.
But in recent years, the interest has waned, with the prime example the Cougar Hispanic College Fund Challenge in 2007 when a 26-win WSU team played three games in front of crowds that combined for 11,618 – barely over the Arena's capacity.
Last year's 75-68 win over the Air Force Academy was witnessed by a crowd generously listed at 7,024, a number WSU coach Ken Bone would love to surpass tonight.
"I would love to see our WSU fans out here," he said Thursday. "We've got a great team, fun to watch and it's a great opportunity for people in the Spokane area to check us out."
After playing in the Arena last year, the Cougars played to sell-out crowds in Tri-Cities and Seattle, part of a 10-2 nonconference record.
And that brings another meaning to the term.
Last season, WSU started out 6-1, just as the Cougars are today. It marks the fifth consecutive year they have won at least six times in their first seven games.
But this year's Cougar squad showed in Wednesday night's 81-59 demolishing of Gonzaga it has more in common with the 26-win teams from four and five years ago than it has with last year's 16-15, Pac-10 cellar dwellers.
It starts on the defensive end, where WSU is getting the similar results as those Tony Bennett teams with a dissimilar philosophy.
"That's a big difference between this year and last year," WSU acknowledged star, junior Klay Thompson, said. "We could score last year, but our defense was a little shaky. This year I think we're really solid defensively. ... If we keep doing that, we can play with anybody."
Like those 26-win squads, the Cougars are harassing opponents into poor shooting nights. WSU leads the Pac-10 in shooting percentage defense (36.8 percent) and scoring defense (57 points per game). Those numbers rank 14th and 17th, respectively, nationally.
But unlike those teams, Washington State is doing it with a mixture of zone and man defenses, showing a flexibility to adjust to the opponent. And to its own weaknesses.
One that seems glaring on the surface is size. Other than 6-foot-8 DeAngelo Casto, the Cougars don't have much in the way of a physical presence inside.
So Bone and his staff have upped the ball pressure – WSU forced 25 turnovers Wednesday and average 18.3 per game – and solidified the back line with an tactic straight from "Hoosiers:" the Cougars take charges, six against GU and at least one or two every game.
"We've tried to do that here this year," Bone said. "If we do a good job of ball pressure, sometimes people are going to be able to drive it on us. And if they drive it, sometimes we don't have the bigs to stop them inside with shots blocks or even a good post presence.
"But if we can get there in time to pick up a charge, we need to do that. Some of our kids did a great job tonight."
Defense isn't the only area in which this 6-1 team is better than last year's. If Thompson, who is averaging 21.6 points per game, wasn't making shots last season, WSU had few options.
This year, two newcomers – JC transfer Faisal Aden and freshman Patrick Simon – have added firepower, enough, in fact, to allow WSU to weather point guard Reggie Moore's wrist injury that cost him the first five games and still seems to be limiting his production.
Aden is averaging 18.0 and Simon 7.0, but more importantly both shoot well enough that helping off Thompson isn't a simple decision. Add in the fact Thompson has improved his ability to drive and finish – his left hand was almost a spectator last year – and WSU's offense is averaging 78.1 points per game.
When Gonzaga crawled back into the game by switching screens, Thompson began attacking the rim.
"Gonzaga did a nice job of adjusting to (the pick-and-pop attack) but it's a give and take," Bone said. "They switched it and stopped us from getting the pick-and-pop, but there were opportunities for us to drive the mismatch."
And that got Thompson started.
"After I hit those layups (to open the second half) and I was getting to the basket pretty easy, I was in a great rhythm," he said, "because when you see the ball go in like that, any scorer is going to feel good about themselves and hunt their shot."
His versatility offensively was matched by the rest of his game, with a stat line – 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 7 steals and a block – that brought back memories of a guy who was here before, Kyle Weaver.
"He made a lot of positive things happen. He made a lot of great basketball plays," Bone said. "He is not just a shooter anymore."
Thompson and the new-look Cougars will be on display tonight against a 3-7 Texas-Pan Am team. Thompson just hopes there is someone there to see it.
"We're a year older. A lot of us have more experience, we're more mature and we don't let (adversity) affect us anymore," he said. "Hopefully, people will see how good we can be, and hopefully we'll put on a show up there on Friday too, because you can't be too high on this win and we can't take any opponent lightly."
Washington State will play its first-ever Pac-12 men's basketball series in the Spokane Arena Dec. 29 and 31 of 2011, the school announced Thursday.
The Cougars will face Oregon and Oregon State, respectively.
"Taking a conference basketball weekend to Spokane gives more fans the opportunity to see their team in person," WSU athletic director Bill Moos said in a press release. "With students away from Pullman during the holiday break, it’s a great time to highlight Cougar basketball at one of the premier venues in the Pacific Northwest."
The scheduling is not unprecedented, as WSU played at least one game of the Pac-10 home opening series in Spokane for six consecutive years, starting in 1996.
• That's it for now. We'll be back in the morning with our usual post. Until then ...