This was a game I wasn't feeling very optimistic about -- and, truth be told, I'm still not -- but I'm feeling less pessimistic today after this little bit of news crossed the wire:
UCLA will try to win its first game against a Division I opponent outside of Southern California on Saturday but will do so without 6-foot-10 forward Travis Wear. Wear suffered a high ankle sprain in the Bruins' 71-69 loss to Washington on Thursday and is unlikely to play against Washington State.
Obviously, UCLA's massive front line was going to be a major sticking point, but now that the Bruins are a little less massive, perhaps there's a crack that WSU can exploit. Travis is the more offensive minded of the brothers (119 offensive rating on 22 percent of possessions used, 13 percent offensive rebounding), so this should theoretically help the Cougars defend the Bruins.
Ben Howland has only been using three big men with the Wears starting and Joshua Smith coming off the bench. This injury completely fouls with Howland's rotation. Does he start Smith and run the risk of the big man getting in foul trouble immediately -- the very reason he became a reserve in the first place? Or does he insert little-used -- and offensively inept -- Anthony Stover as a place holder?
My guess is Howland goes with the latter, and when he eventually brings Smith off the bench, he'll try to ride the out-of-shape center as far as he'll take him. Neither Stover, nor Brendan Lane, are attractive options, as they've played just 68 combined minutes in the last seven games.
This, however, is the question: How far can Howland actually ride Smith?
Looking at this objectively, this injury really does have the potential to be a game changer for WSU. There's a non-zero chance Smith might have shot his wad, so to speak, in his season-high 26 minutes against Washington. They were good minutes (24 points in 13 shots), but they also were hard minutes for a guy who's still very out of shape. If WSU can somehow get him in foul trouble -- honestly, not that tough to do -- Howland is going to have to go deep into his bench for guys that, frankly, aren't very good. Smith is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and Travis Wear isn't far behind. Given WSU's defensive rebounding issues, getting Smith off the floor should be paramount for WSU.
Of course, it won't matter a lick if WSU gives up 15 threes to Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb.
I guess what I'm saying is that I could see this being close, with even the (gasp!) possibility of a WSU win. But I also could see this being another complete blowout. I suppose that could be construed as wishy washy, but until Travis Wear's injury, I didn't even see the first as much of an option. So ... progress!
You can find a radio stream of the game at mynorthwest.com, and if there's a video feed, the link will reside somewhere in the comments.