PULLMAN – The good news for the Washington State basketball team: After three consecutive road losses that saw the Cougars lose by an average margin of 13 points and continue their post-Wooden Legacy freefall, they’re finally back in the familiar trappings of Beasley Coliseum.
WSU’s record in Pullman – six wins and three losses – isn’t sparkling, but the Cougars are faring better in their own gym than they are elsewhere – and by a long shot. With Sunday’s 18-point loss to Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena, they fell to 0-7 in true road games and have gone more than a calendar year without winning at another Pac-12 arena.
The bad news is that WSU’s next opponent has the tendency to negate the advantage teams have playing on their home court. And a short turnaround following Sunday’s loss to the Huskies gives the Cougars only 72 hours to study No. 9 Arizona, its projected No. 1 NBA Draft pick center and its preseason All-American guard.
“Extremely tough,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “Particularly getting back late night Sunday, you don’t sleep well. These guys have to get up to go to class Monday and they’ve got some bumps and bruises. And you try to get a practice in today to play a team of that magnitude on Wednesday, that’s extremely tough to do and yet we know that. We have to play them, we have to get ready to play them and we’ll be ready to play.”
Tipoff between the Wildcats (18-4, 8-1) and the Cougars (9-11, 1-7) is at 7 p.m. and Pac-12 Networks will televise the only regular-season meeting between the teams.
It’s a normal year when the Wildcats come to Pullman nationally ranked and with expectations to compete for a national championship. But never has Arizona produced the top pick of the NBA Draft and Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com and Bleacher Report all project the Wildcats’ freshman phenom, DeAndre Ayton, to become the first.
Ayton’s been more than a tough cover for opponents this year, averaging 19.5 points per game – second in the Pac-12 – and a conference-leading 10.7 rebounds per game. He’s one of 16 players in college basketball averaging a double-double.
The key to stopping Ayton?
“We’re not going to stop him,” Kent said. “I’ll tell you that right now. It’s not about stopping him. I think the biggest thing for us in the game is making sure we have our energy and competitive nature to go into a game ready to play and be able to show what we can do.”
Forward Drick Bernstine will be one of the Cougars asked to check Ayton. Of the challenge, Bernstine said: “Just go in and not think anyone’s better than you kind of thing. That’s just my mindset in every game.”
Some combination of Jeff Pollard, Robert Franks, Arinze Chidom and Davante Cooper will also be deployed to cover Arizona’s high-motored big man.
“He’s an all-around player,” Cooper said of Ayton. “… But he still can be contained.”
A productive game from Ayton on the offensive end could help him make up ground on teammate Allonzo Trier, who’s the front-runner for the Pac-12 scoring title at 19.7 ppg and was a preseason First Team All-American according to the Associated Press.
Trier is also somewhat of an anomaly for a Sean Miller-coached team. The Wildcats have never lacked strong backcourts, but few of the guards as talented as Trier stay more than one season.
Miller’s had Trier for three – his sophomore campaign was cut in half after a positive PED test – but the experience of the Seattle-born junior is one reason many think the Wildcats are better suited than they’ve ever been to contend for a national crown.
Dusan Ristic, the most recent Pac-12 Player of the Week, complements Ayton inside with his 7-foot, 245-pound frame. Arizona expects 2016-17 All-Freshman candidate Rawle Alkins to return Wednesday after missing three of the last four games with an injury.
“They’re extremely big, they’re athletic, they defend, they run, they score, they do everything right,” Kent said. “And they’re an impressive basketball team. We’ve got to offset some of that.”
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