Note: This article also appears at CollegeHoopsNet.com.
Game of the Week: #7 Arizona at Washington State (Saturday, January 6th, 10:00 PM, Regional TV)
With 2006 in our rear view mirror and conference play getting into full swing, many league races are already starting to heat up despite only a few games being played. This weekend, forget about the NFL Playoffs—it’s time for college basketball to take center stage. There is a plethora of marquee match-ups taking place, including UCLA taking their unblemished record into once-beaten Oregon, LSU and Connecticut facing off in a big Saturday night game, and UNLV playing Air Force in what could be the best game all season in the Mountain West. But the best game might surprise you: Arizona at Washington State. One may take a quick look at that and question my sanity, but look closer. Both teams have been playing very well lately, and could be two of the top three teams in the conference. Get ready for a clash of playing styles when the Wildcats face the Cougars.
Arizona looked like an extremely talented group heading into the season, and that talent has translated into an excellent season so far for the Wildcats. They opened the season with a tough road loss to Virginia, but have run off 12—and 3 in the Pac-10— straight wins, including victories over UNLV, Illinois, Memphis, and Washington. The Wildcats also have some other quality wins in what is ranked as the #1 schedule in the country. They average over 87 points per game, good enough for a top 5 scoring offense, and give up over 73 a contest, which is next-to-last in the conference. Ken Pomeroy has the Wildcats as the 2nd-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 83rd-most efficient defensive team.
Washington State came into the season with absolutely no expectations after a 11-17 finish last season, but have surprised nearly everyone with their campaign thus far. The Cougars are 13-2 (2-1 in the Pac-10) and are looking like a legit NCAA Tournament contender. They started the season 7-0, which included a win over UAB and three wins away from home. After a disappointing loss at Utah, Wazzu won four straight with victories over both Gonzaga and San Diego State. In the Pac-10, WSU fell just short at UCLA, but won at USC and against Arizona State. The Cougars average only 67 points per game, but allow just over 57—good enough for a top 15 scoring defense. According to Ken Pomeroy, Washington State has the 77th-most efficient offense and the 48th-most efficient defense.
Arizona Team Breakdown
Arizona has been one of the best teams in college basketball this season, even after a disappointing season last year in which they backed into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round to Villanova. Moreover, the Wildcats also lost NBA Draft Pick Hassan Adams, but still have played much better than last season. They have one of the best and most balanced (five guys with at least 13.3 points per game) offenses in the country, and love to get out and push the ball to get points. The Wildcats don’t press on the defensive end, but have the best running game in the country. No team will beat Arizona if it is a high-scoring contest.
The frontcourt of Arizona is one of the most talented and versatile in the country. Senior Ivan Radenovic, sophomore Marcus Williams, and freshman Chase Budinger form an excellent trio capable of matching up with most frontcourts and creating mismatches all over the floor. Radenovic has had a breakout season so far this year, leading the team in scoring and rebounding while also placing second in assists. He is a very good inside-outside scorer who can shoot the ball with efficiency and also bang on the interior. He is one of the most difficult match-ups in the Pac-10 due to his versatility. Radenovic is also one of the best 6-10 free-throw shooters you will find, hitting his shots at an 88% clip from the line. Williams had a great finish to last season, and has carried that over to this year. He is an outstanding inside-outside scorer who is one of the best shooters in the conference. He is also a good defender. Williams is averaging 22 points over his last three games, and is shooting 78% from the field during that span. He has been somewhat inconsistent at times this season, but seems to be hitting his stride. Budinger has been one of the major impact freshmen this season in college basketball. He has scored at least 12 points in every game except one so far, and has shown the ability to score in a variety of ways. He is also a solid rebounder and an excellent passer. The supremely athletic Budinger was called the most talented recruit to ever play at Arizona by Lute Olson. Jordan Hill and Brett Brielmaier provide depth off the bench, but play less than ten minutes per game.
Arizona’s backcourt is also one of the best in the country, and is much improved over last season. The key to it all has been the play of point guard Mustafa Shakur. After not living up to his high school hype during his first three years at Arizona, Shakur has been one of the best point guards in the country this season, ranking second in the nation in assists at just under 8 per game while also putting up just under 14 points per game. Shakur is a very capable three-point shooter and a good defender who is at his best when leading the fast break for the Wildcats. His ability to take care of the ball and find open teammates has been the main reason for the great start of Arizona. His backcourt partner is Jawann McClellan. The 6-5 junior was primed for a big season after playing in only two games last season due to injury. He has enormous potential and is very athletic. Moreover, McClellan is an excellent three-point shooter and has already made more threes this year than he did during his entire freshman season. His defense and rebounding are also solid. Like the frontcourt, the backcourt for the Wildcats lacks quality depth. Freshman Nic Wise provides a couple of minutes of rest for Shakur at the point, while Daniel Dillon is a very good defender who can lockdown opponents off the bench.
Washington State Team Breakdown
Washington State had an awful season last year, finishing 11-17 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-10, despite two victories over Washington in the regular season. The Cougars also had to replace their head coach, Dick Bennett, with his son, Tony. The results have been excellent. While Washington State still would rather play a slow-down, defensive-minded game, they aren’t afraid to get out in transition when the time is right. They have a variety of athletes who can play multiple tempos. This isn’t the same old Washington State anymore—something is brewing in Pullman.
Washington State’s frontcourt is not very pretty on paper, but they do a little bit of everything and get the job done. 6-5 senior Ivory Clark leads the way. He is very athletic and is an excellent finisher at the rim when he gets into the lane. Clark does most of his work inside the arc, and has not hit a three-pointer all year. He has a good touch around the basket and is one of the best undersized inside players in the conference. He is a solid defender and a good rebounder, as well. Flanking him at the other forward spot is Daven Harmeling. He red-shirted last season but has come on this year to become a major contributor up front. He has scored in double-figures seven times this year, and has a nice inside-outside offensive game to complement Clark. He didn’t score a point against UCLA when they faced the Bruins, and will need to change that against Arizona. Rounding out the starters is big man Robbie Cowgill. The 6-10 junior was expected to develop into one of the best big men in the Pac-10, but he has taken a step back since last season. His numbers are down across the board, but he has played much better in the past couple of weeks and could be picking up his play. He is averaging over 12 points per game in his last four contests. Cowgill is a good passer and post defender who provides a nice inside presence for the Cougars. Sophomore Aron Baynes from Australia provides quality depth behind Cowgill, and had 10 points and 8 rebounds in a game earlier this season. Caleb Forrest is another player that comes off the bench. He had a season-high 11 points in the team’s last outing against Arizona State.
Although the frontline of the Cougars is solid, the backcourt is where Wazzu’s success lies. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver form one of the best guard duos in the conference, and one of the most underrated you’ll find in college basketball. Low is the team’s go-to-scorer and can get points in a variety of ways. He is good at penetrating and getting to the basket, but is also one of the best three-point shooters in the country, shooting over 45% from behind the arc. He has scored in double-figures in all but two games this year, and hasn’t put up below 8 this season. Low is also an outstanding defender who is a good passer, as evidenced by his 7 assists in their game against Arizona State. Weaver might be a better all-around player than Low. He can contribute in a variety of ways, made most clear by his line against Idaho State earlier this season: 11 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal, 5 blocks. He’s not as good of a scorer as Low, but he is also a very good defender and leads the team in assists and is second in rebounding. Moreover, he is tied for the team lead in blocks, despite his 6-5 size. Don’t count out Weaver’s scoring ability, though. He averages double-figures, and has put up 16 in a game twice this year. The depth is also solid on the perimeter. 6-6 Nikola Koprivica is a versatile wing that can score in a hurry, while Taylor Rochestie is one of the best shooters on the team. Mac Hobson’s minutes have fallen dramatically since the beginning of the season, but he is still a quality contributor off the bench.
This game is going to be a very interesting game, with two contrasting styles and two teams that excel on different sides of the ball. Washington State would rather the game be in the 60s, while Arizona would prefer it in the 80s and 90s. The Cougars like to slow it down and play a half-court game, forcing teams to play defense, while the Wildcats love to get out in transition for easy baskets and open shots. Something has to give. The keys for Washington State in this game are fairly obvious. First, they have to get the game at their tempo. If they get into a running game with Arizona, they won’t win, plain and simple. Forcing Arizona to play defense for 25-30 seconds on each possession will give the Cougars an advantage, as the Wildcats are not a very good defense team. Moreover, if the Cougars don’t turn the ball over and allow Arizona to push the ball for transition baskets, it will be in their favor. Additionally, they have to establish an inside game with Ivory Clark and Robbie Cowgill. Clark is a tough player to match-up with, but Arizona has the personnel to do it. Cowgill needs to get baskets inside early and try to put Ivan Radenovic in foul trouble. Arizona does not have a lot of depth, especially down low, and that could be their weakness throughout the season. Defensively, Derrick Low or Kyle Weaver needs to stop Mustafa Shakur from getting the Arizona offense going. If they slow down Shakur, the Wildcats offense will stagnate. Lastly, Low and Weaver need to have big games on the offensive end. They are the most explosive scorers for the Cougars, and any team that beats Arizona will need to get points from somewhere.
For Arizona, they need to do just the opposite of what Washington State needs to do—make the game a transition contest, forcing the Cougars to run with them. As I said before, no team will beat Arizona in a high-scoring, fast-break basketball game. The Wildcats are extremely balanced on offense, making them difficult to shut down. If one player is having an off night, there are four other players capable of taking over. It makes them extremely hard to play defense against. Also on the offensive end, getting Radenovic touches early and often could be key. He is quicker and more athletic than Cowgill and he needs to take advantage of that. Additionally, getting Marcus Williams or Chase Budinger in mismatches throughout the game will be big for the Wildcats. They are both capable of scoring in a variety of ways and are too explosive for Washington State. Defensively, Arizona needs to play a lot better than they did against Washington on Thursday. The Huskies constantly had open shots and knocked down the majority of them. If the Cougars get that many open shots, Arizona could be in for a long night. Moreover, Radenovic has to slow down Cowgill early. Cowgill has been playing much better lately, and will look to establish himself in the opening minutes of the game. The most important part of this game will be the tempo. Whoever wins that battle will likely win the game. I think that it will be somewhere in between a 50s-60s game and a 80s-90s game, but since Arizona has been able to speed up nearly every team it has played against, I think the Wildcats have the advantage. Lute Olson and the ‘Cats get a big-time road win in the Pac-10.
Prediction: Arizona 72, Washington State 68
Prediction Record: 4-1
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