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OPEN HOOPS GAME THREAD: No. 4 Gonzaga at WSU

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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008, 7 PM PST
Friel Court

PROBABLE STARTERS

WSU - No. 15 Pomeroy Vitals Gonzaga - No. 3 Pomeroy Vitals
G Taylor Rochestie (Sr.) 6-1/193 G Jeremy Pargo (Sr.)
6-2/219
G Klay Thompson (Fr.) 6-6/187 G Matt Bouldin (Jr.)
6-5/214
G Nikola Koprivica (Jr.) 6-6/217 G Micah Downs (Sr.)
6-8/180
F Daven Harmeling (Sr.) 6-7/227 F Austin Daye (So.)
6-10/190
C Aron Baynes (Sr.) 6-10/250 C Josh Heytvelt (Sr.)
6-11/238

OK, enough bashing on each other. It's time to talk about what really matters: The game.

As we've already established, this Gonzaga team is good. And for all the talk that will go on by the FSN announcers about the Zags' offensive firepower -- the Bulldogs feature six players averaging double figures in scoring, none of whom are named Pargo (if you can believe that) -- this game is going to come down to defense, as most games that involve the Cougars do.

You guys are familiar with all the personnel in this game, so I'm not going to go into a big scouting report as I normally would. What I will do is break this game down into a series of keys that are likely to decide its outcome.

Key No. 1: Do the Zags again get frustrated by the pace? It's no secret Gonzaga wants to play at a fast pace; the Bulldogs average 73.3 possessions. The Cougs, of course, average only 60.6 possessions. Two years ago, the teams met in the middle (66 possessions); last year, the pace clearly favored the Cougs (62 possessions), and it gave WSU an advantage. The Zags made the same mistake so many teams do, thinking they could dictate the pace.

The problem with that, of course, is that if you miss your shots -- which will be contested -- the Cougs are expert defensive rebounders, and nearly four out of every five shots will result in a one-and-done. You then will watch the Cougs walk the ball back up the floor, and milk another 30 seconds off the clock.

Indiana employed a similar strategy on Saturday with players vastly inferior to WSU's, and had some success. Don't le the final score (70-56) of that game fool you; it was much closer than the final margin. Mark Few has been telling the press in the days leading up to this game that his players have to be comfortable with a game in the 50s. The question then becomes, will his players buy it? Or will they fall into the same trap as last year?

Key No. 2: Does Gonzaga really want to play defense? It's one thing to play defense for 15-20 seconds after offensive possessions that last 15 seconds or less; it's another thing entirely to play defense for 30-35 seconds after having to work harder than you've ever had to work for quality shots on offense. So, while I do believe the Gonzaga defense is improved, I'll truly believe it's for real when I see this team play great defense for entire possessions -- especially without the benefit of a raucus K2 crowd to fuel the adrenaline.

If Gonzaga does what it has a history of doing, which is take breaks on defense with a 2-3 zone that often can sag too much, that could open up some real opportunities for the Cougars on offense.

Key No. 3: Can the Cougs get a playmaker to take over this game? Last year, it was Aron Baynes (with a bit of help from the passing of Taylor Rochestie and Kyle Weaver); the year before it was Derrick Low and Daven Harmeling.

Who's the guy this year?

The Cougar defense is going to limit the Zags like they haven't been this year -- just as they've done to Pitt and Baylor -- but somebody has to step up, to the tune of 15 to 20 points. Can Rochestie get into the lane the way he did last year and set up Baynes, who now has to contend with Josh Heytvelt, who was injured last year? Has Tony Bennett devised a way to get Klay Thompson free for some shots? Could Harmeling do it one more time? Whoever it is, this team is going to need an unexpected offensive spark.

Key No. 4: Can Tony Bennett once again outcoach Mark Few? Over the past two years, Bennett has become famous for his creativity, especially with personnel. However, at times this year, he's played it pretty close to the vest. Will he throw Gonzaga a curveball it hasn't seen this year? Can he make the adjustments to exploit the weaknesses in Gonzaga's defense? Bennett just might be able to make a 4- or 6-point difference in this game in favor of the Cougs if he plays his cards right.

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