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WSU Men's Basketball

In road matchup with No. 4 Arizona, No. 21 WSU gets chance to all but punch tournament ticket

Washington State’s Jaylen Wells dunks during the second half against Arizona last Saturday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – By now, the scouting report is out on Washington State. The Cougars are huge, ranking first nationwide in average height, a key reason why they toppled Arizona last month in Pullman, the program’s first home win over a top-10 foe in four calendar years.

For No. 21 WSU, replicating that outing Thursday night in Tucson looks challenging for a few reasons.

The No. 4 Wildcats have a better idea on how to attack the Cougars’ matchup zone defense. It’s also a road game, set for McKale Memorial Center.

Then there are the stakes. Washington State, ranked for the first time since 2008 and on the doorstep of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the same year, could all but punch its ticket with a victory.

At stake is first place in the Pac-12, which Arizona leads by one-half game headed into Thursday’s game.

That’s the roundabout way of stating the obvious: This ranks as one of the bigger games in Washington State program history.

“I think they’re leading the country in scoring margin and at home,” said WSU coach Kyle Smith, whose team hasn’t hit 20 wins this early since the 2008 season. “And they’re just a really, really talented team. A great atmosphere, one of the best in the country. Pressure is a privilege, and we’ve got an opportunity to do that.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing WSU (20-6, 11-4 Pac-12) is the size and strength of Arizona (20-5, 11-3).

On that front, the leader is 7-foot bruiser Oumar Ballo, who averages 13 points and 10 rebounds a game, recording 33 putbacks this season, according to Hoop-Math.com. The Wildcats rank fifth nationally in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 22.8% of their misses.

In WSU’s Jan. 13 win over Arizona, the Cougs found ways to limit the Wildcats’ damage on that end. Arizona had 22 offensive rebounds, but it turned those into only 12 second-chance points, keeping Ballo to two points and nine rebounds in the second half.

The Cougars will likely have to defend the Wildcats’ bigs – Ballo and forwards Keshad Johnson and Pelle Larson – like they did in Pullman – by committee.

WSU center Oscar Cluff played 19 minutes and freshman Rueben Chinyelu logged 17. Senior Isaac Jones posted 24 points and 13 rebounds, and he also took turns on Arizona’s posts.

“The biggest thing is they’re so hard to keep off the glass,” Smith said. “(Ballo) had eight offensive boards. So we got him to miss, and that’s only half the battle. He’s got such good hands. It’s gonna be a two- or three- man battle. And that’s what you gotta worry about with the way they play, is that they will run through your post with fouls, because they’re just so committed to putting it in there. They throw it in from the top, where it’s hard to provide much help, and they do a great job of sealing you up there.”

The good news for WSU, at least when it comes to post defense, is that Cluff has made serious strides in recent games.

Cluff has totaled seven blocks in his past two games, wins over Cal and Stanford last weekend. He also posted three steals against Stanford, poking it away from players under the rim.

It’s been a welcome sight for Smith and the Cougars, who had previously rotated Cluff and Chinyelu on an offense-defense basis, Cluff for offense and Chinyelu for defense. Smith might still prefer Chinyelu’s raw athleticism and shot-blocking – he averages 1.3 blocks per game and he has a block rate of 10.3%, according to KenPom – but in Cluff, WSU gets reliable scoring and sturdy defense, which has been enough to limit Chinyelu’s minutes in recent games.

“I think Rueben did a better job on (Ballo) at our place,” Smith said. “That’s how we keep Rueben going.

“He’s been great. Sometimes your minutes are short not because you did anything wrong. It’s just that Oscar was playing so well.”

The winner might be the team that finds an advantage underneath – but it also might be the team that dictates the pace. Arizona likes to play fast, ranking No. 16 nationwide with a pace rating of 72.3. WSU’s figure is 65.1, which ranks 310th.

For the Cougs, it’s partially a function of roster construction. It’s hard to play fast when your average height is around 6-7. It also has to do with one of WSU’s weaknesses on defense, forcing turnovers.

Washington State has recorded steals on just 8% of possessions, per KenPom, ranking No. 286 nationally.

Can WSU play the way it wants on Thursday? The Cougs did last month, forcing 10 Wildcats turnovers for 12 points. Doing so in Tucson presents a different kind of task.