Normally, leaving Pullman for Hawaii would not be considered a kind of harsh reality check, but that's exactly where the WSU basketball team finds itself as the Cougars prepare to open up against No. 3 Oklahoma in the Diamond Head Classic tonight.
Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. PT, and the game will be broadcast on TV on ESPNU, which means it also can be streamed on your laptop or mobile device via WatchESPN. You also can listen to the game online via TuneIn.com.
This tournament, which features eight teams in a three-game guarantee bracket, presents the stiffest challenge of the year for WSU. Beyond the opener against the undefeated Sooners, nobody else in the bracket is a pushover -- it's the Cougars who actually are the lowest rated team in the field by kenpom.com. It's quite the contrast from the first nine games, where eight were played at Beasley Coliseum and the non-Gonzaga opponents ranked an average of 270th.
The Sooners are a completely different animal from anything WSU has faced so far, and it's not just about their overall quality. Their offense is driven by exceptional outside shooting: The Sooners have made just a hair under 50 percent of their 3-point attempts as a team, second best in the country (47.7 percent).
But it's not as if that's all they do; the long-range accuracy merely makes exceptional what would be a very good offense anyway without it. Oklahoma takes care of the ball well and also is one of the better teams in the nation at offensive rebounding. (Senior forward Ryan Spangler is the one who will probably make you hate life on this front.)
If you're thinking that this might be a bad matchup for WSU's defense, which thrives on defending the rim and doesn't do a very good job with defensive rebounding ... well, you're catching on quick.
The engine that makes the Sooners' offense go is Buddy Hield, a senior who passed up the NBA draft and is now a legitimate candidate for college basketball player of the year. He's a high volume shooter who is highly efficient, and WSU is going to have its hands full trying to contain him. He can beat you from anywhere on the floor, as he is shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, nearly 50 percent on his twos, and 88 percent on his free throws. Basically, good luck.
That's not even the biggest problem for WSU, though. That would be the Sooners' elite defense, the calling card of any Lon Kruger team. Oklahoma currently rates second in adjusted defensive efficiency, thanks to an absurd shooting defense that currently ranks sixth nationally in both 3-point and 2-point percentage allowed. Teams are usually good at one or the other, not both, so ... again, good luck Cougs! There just doesn't appear to be a chink in the armor.
About the only thing that might work? Oklahoma plays fast, and so does WSU, so maybe the Cougars can keep up in a track meet by getting shots off before Oklahoma's defense can get set. Additionally, the Sooners don't take the ball away much and will allow teams to shoot a fair number of 3s; perhaps the Cougars can resist simply giving the ball away and Que Johnson or Derrien King -- or, heck, maybe even Josh Hawkinson -- can get hot from long range and shoot the Cougs into the game.
But no matter how you slice it, this is going to be an uphill battle for sure. Vegas favors the Sooners by 13 1/2 points, and kenpom.com forecasts the Cougs to lose by nearly 20 with only a 6 percent chance of victory.
Regardless, I'll be watching, if for no other reason that to see if the forecasts have an accurate bead on WSU at this point. The record is shiny, but there have been some apparent issues that the Cougars are still trying to work out. Will some of that shore up as Ernie Kent tightens the rotation, now that he no longer has the luxury of throwing noodles at the wall to see what sticks while still winning games? I would expect to see a bit of a shift, starting tonight, as WSU plays its final three nonconference games before the Pac-12 schedule begins.
The Cougars will play their second game of the tournament on Wednesday; if they win, they'll face the winner of Northern Iowa and Hawaii at 6 p.m. PT, and if they lose, they'll face the loser of that game at 8:30 p.m. PT.