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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

No. 7 Arizona will test WSU’s defense tonight in Pullman

WSU will need Josh Hawkinson to step up defensively this afternoon as he did Friday in a win over ASU. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Washington State survived in Friday’s win over Arizona State despite a defense that continues to frustrate coach Ernie Kent. If anything can motivate the Cougars to make the correct help-side rotations and move their feet quicker perhaps it’s a visit from the country’s eighth-best shooting men’s basketball team.

WSU’s best defensive performance of the season might not be enough to beat No. 7 Arizona today, but it’s a prerequisite to even having a shot against the 16-point favorite.

Until UCLA can once again win with some consistency, UA is the perennial team-to-beat in the Pac-12 and this year the Wildcats (21-3, 9-2 Pac-12) aren’t just beating teams, they’re beating them up.

UA averages a 16.2-point scoring margin against its opponents and has an advantage in nearly every category against nearly every team it faces. The big, athletic Wildcats rank among the top four in most major offensive and defensive stats.

“It’s a beast coming in here,” Kent said. “We know the challenge ahead of us, it’s a humongous challenge and everybody is going to have to be, I don’t want to say ‘perfect,’ but 8 out of 10 times down the floor defensively you better be on your job and not have slippage and 8 out of 10 times offensively you better be on your job and not have slippage because they will make you pay in a big way.”

WSU (11-13, 5-7) took some of the pressure off today’s game by beating Arizona State on Friday, but the Cougars have struggled to have more than a couple of players perform well in the same game in recent weeks. Lately, that player has been Dexter Kernich-Drew, who scored 18 points against Oregon last week and then had a career-high 27 in the 74-71 win over ASU.

But while WSU has a few players capable of a big game on any night, the Wildcats get consistency out of their entire rotation. Arizona’s best player, freshman forward Stanley Johnson, leads the team in scoring with a mere 14.8 points per game and six UA players (twice as many as WSU) average at least 8.3.

And the Cougars will be hard-pressed to stop them. Pac-12 schools are holding each other to a 44 percent shooting average this season but WSU’s opponents have exceeded that in all but two of the Cougars’ conference games.

“If you don’t understand help-side defense right now, I’m either a bad teacher or you’re a bad pupil or a bad listener,” Kent said after the ASU game. “I haven’t figured out which of the three it is right now, but we continue to teach stuff that we taught from day one, we continue to demand.

“And if we don’t play better defense than we played (Friday), Arizona will beat us by 30.”