Pulllman, WA —Washington State (10-2) will open their Pac-10 conference play Thursday afternoon against the Oregon Ducks (8-4) at 3:30 p.m. on the home floor of Cougar basketball, Friel Court.
The first 12 games of this season were preparation for what really counts: conference play. Coach Ken Bone takes his team into the Pac-10 schedule with confidence.
During his teleconference Tuesday morning, Coach Bone was pleased with the progress players have made during practice and through the non-conference portion of the season.
"I think there are some kids in our program that are playing with more confidence than they have in the past. Any time guys play with confidence they usually play better. They’re a little more relaxed and they just perform a little bit better," Bone said.
After media covering the Pac-10 projected the Cougs to finish near the bottom of the conference, many a head has been turned by the sparkling record WSU has earned up to this point. Heck, even Coach Bone can be counted among those surprised by this young Washington State team.
"I don’t think I would have guessed we’d be 10-2 at this point. As far as how we are playing, I’d hoped we’d be playing about the way we are right now…which is good. I was being optimistic. Our guys are accepting their roles and we’re pretty healthy. Those were the two main concerns (going into conference play)... We have continued to get better at a decent rate for a young team and a new staff...We feel good about how we’re playing and how we’re playing as a group." - WSU Coach Ken Bone
Coach Ernie Kent is getting players back from injuries and has his team on a nice four-game winning streak coming in to Pullman. Oregon has a strong blend of good outside shooters and size up front to crash the boards as hard as any team in the conference.
When it comes to putting up points, Tajuan Porter is capable of exploding for 30-plus points every time he takes the floor. Porter brings quickness and an NBA-quality outside shot to the game that will drive any defense crazy. His outside play is complemented by the power and size of Michael Dunigan .
Dunigan is rounding into shape for the Pac-10. He's coming off a 26-point performance Monday, night which should be a real boost to his confidence. Yes, that's a career best for the 6'10" center from the Chicago area.
Expect to see plenty of scoring when these two teams play Thursday. Both average around 80 points per game, while yielding around 67.
One area the Cougs hold an edge is in shooting percentage, suggesting they are working to take quality shots on the offensive end of the court.
Coach Bone spoke to that issue Tuesday saying, "I’m pleased we're looking for opportunities in transition and if they’re not there we’re playing the half-court game."
Reggie Moore has been doing a great job running the WSU offense with Klay Thompson terrorizing opponents with his scoring ability. Both will get plenty of attention from Oregon when the Cougs have the ball.
DeAngelo Casto appears to have no lingering effects from knee surgery this past summer. No question Casto is much improved from a good freshman campaign a year ago. Last season, he was apt to pick up fouls in bunches coming off the bench.
Coach Bone points out that last year Casto was free to play with abandon because senior center Aron Baynes was the man in the middle.
DeAngelo was only going to get roughly 12 to 14 minutes of playing time a game, so picking up two or three fouls in a matter of minutes wasn't an issue. He wasn't going to be counted on to shut down players in the paint for the majority of any particular game.
Casto is the big man Coach Bone is counting on this season. He's adapted his style to play his role protecting the basket and frequently swat away opponents' shot attempts. Strength and length are the combination making Casto a force in the middle for Washington State.
One other player who has been coming on strong the last few games is the lone senior on the WSU roster, Nikola Koprivica . "Gramps," as his teammates like to kid him, will usually be the first player Coach Bone rotates in off the bench. Koprivica has been a force on both ends of the court with high energy, physical play.
It's time for another season of Pac-10 basketball.
Televised coverage of the game is limited to the Oregon Sports Network. For most Cougar fans, your best option will be to tune in on the Cougar Sports Radio Network and listen to one of the best broadcasters in the business, Bud Nameck.
Originally published in Lew Wright's WSU Sports column on Examiner.com