Washington State-Arizona: Cougars Set To Inch Closer to Postseason Play

Lew WrightSenior Writer IFebruary 25, 2009

What a difference a game has made for the Washington State Cougar basketball season.

This time last week coach Tony Bennett was focused on doing the things necessary for his team to play the best basketball they are capable of.

Though Coach Bennett is telling us the same things this week, reality speaks to grand possibilities.

"I’ve said it for the past five months: I just want to play good basketball and that will take us to where we need to be, if that’s the postseason or not," Coach Bennett said Tuesday afternoon.

WSU proved last week they have plenty of fight left in them.

Led by the tenacious play of senior Taylor Rochestie, the Cougs fell just short of claiming a comeback win over USC and had what it took to knock off No. 20 UCLA.

Talk around the Pac-10 this week includes Washington State as a team that is peaking at just the right time.


Washington State has all the components to emerge from the Pac-10 tournament with the conference's guaranteed spot in the Big Dance. Yes, winning the Pac-10 tourney looks very possible based on the maturity of Coach Bennett's young guns.

Before any of such lofty expectations have Cougar Nation getting carried away, there are still three very important games left on the Washington State regular season schedule.

The next step WSU will take toward postseason play will be taking on the Arizona Wildcats (18-9, 8-6) in Beasley Coliseum Thursday evening. 

Arizona isn't just the next step; it's a huge step.

Coach Russ Pennell appears to have returned Wildcat basketball to solid ground. 

ASU put a stop to Arizona's seven-game winning streak last Sunday, hanging on to a razor-thin 70-68 win. Typical of rivalry games of late between these two programs, the game was one that could have gone either way.

When WSU and Arizona met in Tucson at the end of last month, the 'Cats put up 43 points on the Cougs in the second half. That is the kind of scoring Coach Bennett expects an opponent to earn over the course of a game, not 20 minutes of play.

Coach Pennell had his team attack the paint in the second half of that game. When his players weren't converting shots, they were getting trips to the free throw line. Occasionally, the 'Cats earned both. That was the difference in the game. Arizona outscored WSU at the foul line by 12 points.

Arizona has three of the top offensive players in the conference in Nic Wise, Chase Budinger, and Jordan Hill. That trio puts a lot pressure on any defense. Coach Bennett will be challenged to mix up his defensive sets to slow down the 'Cats' three-headed attack.

The Cougs will counter with their own trio of talented offensive players. Taylor Rochestie, Klay Thompson, and Aron Baynes can easily put up big numbers. 

How good is the WSU trio? Here's what they did in the previous game with Arizona. Rochestie put up 22 points. Baynes had another double-double, scoring 12 points and hauling in 14 rebounds. Thompson had one of his worst games shooting the rock, going 3-13. That isn't likely to happen again.

When it comes down to it, the key to this game will be how Coach Pennell handles the strong will of the Cougs to play Bennett Ball. His team is at its best when they can run. Unfortunately for the 'Cats, that phase of the game is what Washington State is best at stopping.

It's time to check those hopes and dreams about what might be.

The next hurdle WSU has to get over is defeating Arizona, one of the hottest basketball teams in the nation.

"It’s not so much can we get into the NCAA tournament; it’s can we play a level of basketball that gives us a chance to be successful."—WSU Coach Tony Bennett

This basketball season has been a wild ride for Cougar Nation.

It's not over yet.