Washington State travels to Arizona this week for a couple of Pac-10 road games. Their first stop will be in Tempe on Thursday to take on the powerhouse Sun Devils of Arizona State.
ASU has had their way with almost every opponent this season. Their record stands at an impressive 16-3, though two of those losses have come in conference play.
Even the polls are impressed with Coach Herb Sendek's Sun Devils, ranking them No. 14 in the nation.
The season before sophomore All-Pac-10 guard James Harden arrived in Tempe, Arizona State finished the season a dreadful 8-22. They were an abysmal 2-16 in conference play, not including a first round loss in the Pac-10 tournament.
What a difference a couple of years makes.
Changing the style of team play by Coach Sendek has made quite a difference as well. His Sun Devils are No. 2 in the conference in team defense allowing opponents to score a measly 57.8 points per game.
ASU is middle of the conference in team scoring, averaging 72.3 points per game. That combination adds up to a stellar record of 16-3, while striking fear in the hearts of opponents.
When it comes to offense, Harden leads both his team and the Pac-10 with a eye-popping 22 points a game. Harden can and does score almost at will. Experts are already projecting him to be the No. 2 pick in the upcoming NBA draft if he chooses to leave school early.
If Harden and company miss a shot, chances are good that the rebound will be grabbed by their crafty post player, Jeff Pendergraph who averages 7.5 boards a game. Add to his nose for the ball the fact that he's leading the conference in field goal percentage by converting 67.5% of his shots.
ASU likes to run in transition, but is quite comfortable when playing a slow, deliberate style of play. The Sun Devils make everyone work hard for a shot.
Washington State is still smarting from their two losses to UCLA and USC last week. Coach Tony Bennett's young guns couldn't find a way to win either game despite chances to earn a victory in the waning seconds.
The Cougs have slipped to 3-4 in conference play primarily because of their inconsistency.
Against UCLA, they shot the ball well from the floor in the second half. That had them fighting for a win in the closing minutes on the home court.
The opposite was the case against the Trojans. That afternoon they couldn't have hit water sitting in a rowboat on the Puget Sound. Poor shooting allowed USC to catch up when WSU missed just about everything.
Coach Bennett's team has yet to play 40 minutes of solid basketball.
Bennett Ball is all about defense. During his weekly dinner gathering with fans Tuesday night, Coach Bennett's frustration came out when asked about working to improve his team's shooting:
I'm open if you have any suggestions. We certainly work on our shooting." - WSU Coach Tony Bennett
Shots are going to fall for Cougar young guns when they combine smart play with confidence.
In the USC game, the Cougs played well on offense when it came to getting a good look at the basket. Clearly they didn't have the confidence necessary to knock down shots.
ASU will likely play plenty of zone defense against the Cougs until they prove they can make jump shots. It's no secret that if WSU can work the ball in to senior Aron Baynes, he has plenty of moves to score in the paint. The Sun Devils will probably double team Baynes every time he touches the ball. And why not? The Cougs are shooting just 42.6% from the floor despite the sharp shooting of Baynes who is second in the Pac-10 with an efficient 59.4% conversion rate.
Both teams play defense first, offense second.
Both teams play best when setting a slow, deliberate pace.
This game will be determined by the play of James Harden. Harden couldn't slow down either of Cal's guards when ASU lost to the Bears the beginning of this month. Cal lit up the Sun Devils for 81 points, 51 of which came from their guards. USC guards focused on shutting down Harden. They held him to four points which resulted in the Sun Devils other Pac-10 loss.
Not many teams have the talent to slow Harden down. Senior Taylor Rochestie will be assigned that task. He'll have to get support from his teammates to make that happen.
It will be nice for the Cougs to leave winter weather behind in Pullman for a few days. Hotter temperatures in the Arizona climate might be just what WSU needs to heat up their offense.