When evaluating Thursday’s game between Washington State and UCLA, it may be easy to revert to the first contest between the Cougars and Bruins to anticipate what will happen in the rematch.
In this instance, it’s probably not advisable.
“I just think, you throw out the UCLA game,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said Tuesday in a news conference. “They had 91 points, they shot it well, we weren’t right. I think the message to our team, we didn’t prepare right and some of that’s on the coaching staff. Me, specifically. Might not have given ourselves the best chance to compete that night.”
As expected, the Bruins beat the Cougars during their Jan. 14 meeting at Pauley Pavilion. While Smith can’t assure an upset in a game that ESPN’s predictive model gives UCLA (13-4, 9-2) a 72.5% chance to win, there’s enough evidence to suggest Washington State (11-8, 4-8) will make the rematch a more competitive affair.
Tipoff at Beasley Coliseum is scheduled for 8 p.m., and the game will air on FS1.
On three occasions this season, Mick Cronin’s team has shot better than 54% from the field. The Bruins have finished with a 3-point shooting clip of at least 56% in two games and they’ve registered a free-throw percentage of 88% or better.
But a 30-point romp of the Cougars was the only time UCLA has done each of those three in the same game. The Bruins were 33 of 61 (54.1%) from the field, 9 of 16 (56.3%) from 3-point range and 16 of 18 (88.8%) from the foul line.
“They do cause a lot of problems, because they essentially put four guards out there,” Smith said. “… They were 7 of 9, I think, from 3 in the first half. That’s hard to overcome and we’ve got to do a better job.”
The inherent advantage of playing on your home floor should give the Cougars an edge they didn’t have last time. Sophomores DJ Rodman and Ryan Rapp, who missed the last UCLA game while in COVID-19 protocol, are coming off an Oregon State game that saw them combine for 29 points and seven 3-pointers.
The Bruins may be the ones dealing with roster attrition in this matchup. Starting forward Cody Riley didn’t play in a 16-point loss to USC after spraining his right ankle and Riley’s backup, Jalen Hill, was also absent due to personal issues. In a news conference Tuesday, Cronin called Riley “day to day” and said Hill was still out for UCLA.
If Riley and Hill are both out for Thursday’s game, the Bruins will presumably turn to the tandem of sophomore Kenneth Nwuba and freshman Mac Etienne, a midyear enrollee who joined UCLA at the start of the 2021 winter quarter.
Nwuba started against the Trojans, but Etienne was more effective, scoring eight points with five rebounds and two blocks, and could get the nod in Pullman.
“I think they’ll still play the same way,” Smith said. “They played zone against SC and SC changed it a little bit. The freshman they played is a pretty highly touted guy and he played pretty well, Etienne. It looks like he’s cut of the same mold of those two. Maybe if you averaged Riley and Hill, you’d come up with Etienne.”
No matter who’s playing in UCLA’s frontcourt, beating the Bruins could come down to limiting the production of Cronin’s backcourt. In the last meeting, point guard Tyger Campbell scored 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, mostly on short floaters and jumpers, had six assists and three rebounds.
“We’ve got to keep Tyger out of the paint,” Smith said, “because he really played well and he really is the catalyst to everything they do offensively.”
Smith is optimistic starting center Dishon Jackson will be available to play against UCLA after leaving the Oregon State game with an injury. Smith said reserve forward Jaz Kunc has been cleared after missing Saturday’s game due to illness.
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