10 AM PST -- McKale Center
Kenpom.com prediction: Arizona 57-54 (56 possesions, 62 percent confidence)
In another season, picking up a win today would be considered gravy. But in a season where the Cougs are trying to prove they are serious about making a run to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament -- something that got a major boost from Thursday's upset -- today's game really is one they need to figure out a way to win.
Personally, I really like the Cougs' chances today, and I have for quite a while. This is not the same Arizona that stomped the Cougs twice last year. Jarryd Bayless was a matchup nightmare for WSU, with strength to match his quickness that allowed him to penetrate at will last year and then kick out to open shooters. While Nic Wise is quick, he's not Bayless. And other than the penetration he repeatedly allowed to Isaiah Thomas, Taylor Rochestie has done a really nice job containing other teams' point guards.
That's just a small portion of the larger point I'm driving at: The Cougs can shut down Arizona on the defensive end. What we're finding out is that this team is as fundamentally sound as last year, but perhaps even a step better because of versatile defenders that allow Tony Bennett to get creative with his matchups. If Wise starts blowing by Rochestie, Bennett can turn to Capers and hope to frustrate him with length. Same goes for DeAngelo Casto on Chase Budinger. And Aron Baynes ought to be able to at least neutralize Jordan Hill.
Another reason to feel good? This game will almost certainly be 60 possessions or less. In their last six games of 64 possessions or less, the Wildcats are 1-4 -- beating only Oregon State while losing to Cal, UCLA, USC and Arizona State. When they're not allowed to run, they struggle to score points.
The final reason to feel good? Arizona's offensive efficiency is highly correlated to its offensive rebounding percentage (+.50). Guess who has the No. 1 defensive rebounding team in the country? In battles between great defensive rebounding and great offensive rebounding, the defensive rebounding almost always wins out.
Of course, the one wildcard is how the Cougs handle Arizona's 2-2-1 press, a defensive strategy they struggled mightily against earlier in the season. It's a concern for me, but not a huge one -- I think it's pretty clear that this team has grown up a lot in the last month, and I just don't seem them getting as flustered as they did earlier this year. After all, it wasn't necessarily the turnovers and quick buckets that killed the Cougs against Gonzaga and Washington; it's how they reacted to it by pressing on the offensive end and then giving up more easy buckets. They got away from their philosophy, something they've really bought into since the Washington loss. This team is playing possession-by-possession, and that should serve it well today, even if a few turnovers are in the cards.
Once in their halfcourt sets, I just don't see the Cougs struggling all that much to score points. They've shown the ability to shred zones this year -- even ASU's vaunted zone wasn't immune. I wouldn't be surprised to see Arizona play more man-to-man, which would play right into the Cougs' hands. Arizona is not a good man-to-man defensive team -- look at last year's defensive efficiency numbers in conference for evidence of that -- and they haven't played much of it this year.
Whether they play zone or man-to-man, expect Aron Baynes to have a big game. Hill hasn't been the same beast he was in the nonconference schedule, and the Big Aussie has established himself as the Pac-10's premier big man in the first half of the conference schedule.
This has the feel to me of a game the Cougs could win handily. I sure hope I'm right.