After a strong 10-2 start during non-conference play, the Washington State Cougars begin Pac-10 play tonight in Los Angeles against the UCLA Bruins.
The Cougars are coming off an 84-68 loss in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii last Friday to the Butler Bulldogs. Prior to the defeat, the Cougars beat Mississippi State 83-57 in the first round and then built a 20-point lead against then 15th-ranked Baylor before holding on for a 77-71 victory in the semifinals.
The only Pac-10 team with more wins than Washington State is the Arizona Wildcats, who are 11-2.
Last year, the Cougars were 11-2 before taking on Pac-10 opponents, and followed that up by winning only six of 18 ball games and missing out on the postseason completely after back-to-back NCAA tournament berths.
The difference? Experience. Last year the Cougars only had one senior on the team, this year—zero. And now with head coach Ken Bone back for his second year, players are coming together and building a chemistry that hopes to take this team back to the postseason.
Junior Klay Thompson leads the Pac-10 in scoring, dropping 22 points a night, and also finds himself in the top five in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. Coming out of high school, Thompson was known more for his shooting and was labeled as a soft player but during his sophomore season worked on driving to the basket and he's continued to build on that this season.
As a freshman, Thompson played in all 33 games and attempted just 31 free throws. Last season, in only 31 games, attempted 167. This year he's on pace to attempt 186 free throws a contest. Just a part of his game that has grown and allowed him to be the third-fastest Cougar to eclipse 1,000 career points, which he did last season.
Helping Thompson on the scoring output has been junior college transfer Faisal Aden who's No. 5 in the conference averaging 16 points a game. Aden was brought in to replace Thompson who some thought might go pro after just two years in Pullman. But with Thompson returning, the two are averaging almost half of the Cougars scoring output as the team averages nearly 78 points a game.
Throughout the early parts of this season, it's been apparent this team excels on the perimeter offensively. As a team, they're shooting 49 percent (first in the conference) from the field and 39 percent from three-point range (second in the conference). Even freshman forward, Patrick Simon, who stands at 6'8", has attempted 39 three-pointers and connected on 33 percent of them.
Sophomore Brock Motum has been the only consistent player for the Cougars offensively in the post. He leads the Pac-10 shooting 65 percent from the field while contributing almost nine points a game. However, the man who stands 6'10" is only averaging three rebounds a game in 20 minutes of play, and that needs to increase significantly.
Motum is not alone in his lack of rebounding as Washington State as a whole needs to crash the boards. Along with Oregon State, both teams are the only two in the conference that on average are being out-rebounded by their opponents.
Last season, the Cougars lost both matchups with UCLA including a 74-62 loss in Los Angeles.
UCLA comes into tonight's game on a five-game winning streak with an 8-4 record where all four losses came consecutively, including a one-point loss at Kansas. The Bruins are 7-1 in Pauley Pavilion this season and all time against the Cougars in Pauley Pavilion are 43-2.
The Bruins have five players averaging double figures led by sophomore Tyler Honeycutt at just fewer than 15 points a game.
With the Bruins leading the conference in blocked shots and second in rebounds, look for Washington State to continue its attack from the perimeter. The Bruins on the other hand will provide a heavy dose of physicality with 310-pound freshman Josh Smith who is averaging 10 points and nearly seven rebounds a game. Smith has amassed five or more offensive rebounds in six of the team's 12 games so far, and is one of three Bruins players averaging at or more than seven rebounds a game.
The Cougars conversely, have just three players who grab more than four rebounds a game.
The saying goes, split your road games and win all your home games, and you're in good shape. But if the Cougars can get their third win ever in Los Angeles along with a victory against USC on Friday afternoon, then they'll be in great shape heading back to Pullman where they'll host two of the weaker schools in the conference in Oregon and Oregon State with a chance to start out 4-0 in Pac-10 play.