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WSU vs. UW preview: Cougars take on slumping Huskies

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The oddsmakers say Washington State is favored by two to earn the sweep over Washington.

Nigel Williams-Goss has been a one-man show at times for UW.
Nigel Williams-Goss has been a one-man show at times for UW.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The WSU Cougars will be looking to put even more distance between themselves and their cross-state rivals tonight when they try to get a second consecutive win against the struggling UW Huskies at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. PT, and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU and streamed on WatchESPN.com.

In what surely is a source of delicious schadenfreude for some/many/most/all of you, the Huskies' once promising season is going down in flames, as seven consecutive Pac-12 defeats have nuked their NCAA tournament aspirations. Washington now sits where everyone presumed the Cougars would reside: 11th in the Pac-12 at just 3-10, two games behind the 5-8 Cougars who already have a head-to-head victory over their rivals.

The biggest culprit in the Huskies' slide has been the disintegration of their erstwhile dominant defense. UW has fallen all the way to 11th in points allowed per possession in Pac-12 play. No so coincidentally, the free-fall has come since sending elite shot blocker Robert Upshaw packing. Prior to Upshaw's dismissal, UW had allowed 1.06 points per possession in its first seven conference games -- not stellar, but not horrible. That would be about middle of the pack at the moment.

Here's what the Huskies have done on defense in the six games since, via the indispensable kenpom.com:

Date Opponent Kenpom Off. Rank Result Eff eFG%
Wed Jan 28 Stanford 28 L, 84-74 1.23 60.4
Sun Feb 1 California 225 L, 90-88 1.21 65.0
Wed Feb 4 Oregon 33 L, 78-74 1.27 58.6
Sun Feb 8 Oregon St. 265 L, 64-50 1.01 52.2
Fri Feb 13 Arizona 13 L, 86-62 1.24 55.9
Sun Feb 15 Arizona St. 55 L, 78-68 1.20 53.5

In taking a quick look through Pomeroy's archives, it doesn't appear UW has ever allowed 1.20 points per possession in five of six games under Lorenzo Romar, so it's probably no coincidence that this seven-game losing streak is the longest for Romar as coach of the Huskies. Granted, four of the five teams to put up great numbers against UW are pretty good offensive clubs, but that should only embolden the Cougs, who rank 90th in adjusted offensive efficiency. And anyone who has watched WSU with any kind of regularity knows that the Cougs have excelled against most defenses (provided they avoid a horrendous shooting night) and struggled mightily against the likes of disciplined defenses such as Arizona and Oregon State.

The Huskies clearly are not that.

UW is hoping the return of forward Jernard Jarreau from injury will help today; he's a limited offensive player, but he will give them some badly needed size inside on the defensive end. Still, without Upshaw in the game to disrupt the interior, it will be interesting to see how extensively Ernie Kent tries to use Jordan Railey and Josh Hawkinson, who were ineffective in the post in the first game, when WSU defeated Washington 80-77 back on January 10. Will the Cougs try to attack Washington with speed or size?

In that game, the Cougars used some excellent first-half perimeter shooting from Brett Boese and Que Johnson to stay in the game while waiting for star guard DaVonte Lacy to come around. And come around he eventually did, scoring more than 20 points in the second half, including nailing a bunch of clutch free throws in the final minute to keep the Huskies at bay. He's been in a bit of a slump, especially shooting -- he's just 12 for his last 50 on 3s over his past seven games.

UW's loss in the first game wasn't for lack of a superlative effort from its own star, Nigel Williams-Goss, who finished with a game-high 30 points on 22 attempts to go along with seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. He has continued to lead the way for Washington, playing a whopping 96 percent of UW's minutes in conference play, and cutting down on his penetration -- which he seemed to be able to conjure at will in the first matchup -- will be key for the Cougs.

To cope for the absences of Upshaw and Jarreau, Romar has gone small with a seven-man rotation that essentially features five guards, a wing and a forward. This means he's utilized four-guard lineups that include Williams-Goss (6-3), Andrew Andrews (6-2), Mike Anderson (6-4) and Darin Johnson or Quevyn Winters (each 6-5). Freshman Donaven Dorsey also has seen increasing minutes, and while he's 6-7, he's clearly a wing and not a forward -- he prefers to shoot the 3 and is a poor rebounder. Presuming Jarreau primarily takes Dorsey's minutes, the Cougars generally will only have to worry about a pair of capable perimeter shooters: Andrews and Anderson. Everyone else has struggled mightily from beyond the arc.

(That said, would it surprise you if someone like Winters, who continues to fire away despite shooting 18 percent out there, went off tonight?)

With all those guards, you'd think the Huskies would want to get out and run, but their pace still has varied and generally been played at the preference of their opponents. Last time out, the Cougars were able to entice Washington into an uptempo game that allowed Ike Iroegbu to have a fine afternoon, and one would think the Cougars would be able to do that again and get some high percentage looks in the paint in transition - provided they don't fall in love with the transition 3, as they sometimes do (to great ineffectiveness).

It's hard to predict x-factors for games, but if we were take a stab at one for the Cougs, it almost certainly would have to be Dexter Kernich-Drew. While both Johnson and Boese have struggled as of late -- the two have just three double-digit scoring games combined since combining for 26 against the Huskies -- Kernich Drew is averaging 21.7 points in his past three games, and is a torrid 14-for-25 from 3 over that span. He's started the past two, going more than 30 minutes in each, and he's going to get some looks with a green light from the bench. Can he continue to hit from deep? How long will Kent's leash be if he cools off a bit?

At the very least, this ought to be an entertaining, competitive game, just as the first one was. I expect Beasley to be rocking.