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WSU vs. Utah basketball: Cougs are heavy underdogs at home

What will it take for WSU to take down Utah? A lot of really good things.

Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars will be hoping for a couple of things on Thursday night when they face the Utah Utes (8 p.m., ESPNU) in Pullman. The first: A hangover after Utah's biggest game of the season ending in disappointing defeat on their home floor. Second: Utah continues its trend of being easier to contend with away from said home floor.

The first is unpredictable and could swing the other way. Maybe Utah is angry about losing out on the Pac-12 title, maybe they'll be out for blood against the Cougars and have a little more motivation to make the score lopsided. We don't really know the mental states of the players and coaching staff, so let's stick to what we do know (numbers).

Utah's ruthlessly efficient offense has dipped below 1.0 points per possession nine games this season, with eight of those occurrences coming away from The Muss. That's eight below-average offensive outputs in just 11 total road contests.

Now, many of those sub-1.0 efforts came against same dang good defensive teams: San Diego State, Kansas, Arizona, Oregon State and, to a lesser extent, UCLA. Some of them didn't: Oregon, UNLV and BYU. Of course, none of those teams even approach the defensive ineptitude of WSU, but it should be encouraging for Cougar fans that Utah isn't the same offensive juggernaut away from home. The juggernaut that posted 1.26 points per possession against the Cougs in Salt Lake while coasting with a large lead for much of the game.

WSU has had flashes of competence on defense lately, especially on its most recent road trip to Los Angeles. But its last home game saw the defense shredded by Washington. Really, the ceiling for this team is "hold the opposition to around their average." The Cougs aren't shutting anyone down.

So, can the Cougars score enough points to pull the upset if they are able to reach that "average" ceiling on defense?

The Utes' defense has translated much better to the road than their offnse, but the worst performances have come away from home. In particular, allowing UCLA to score 1.16 points per possession in Pauley Pavilion after holding the Bruins to 0.65 in Salt Lake.

WSU did what it does best last time out against the Utes: Get to the free throw line. Unfortunately, nine of the 27 attempts were from Jordan Railey, who had a rough night even by his low free throw shooting standards, hitting just 2 of 9.

Going 14 of 27 on free throws, combined with an unusually high turnover rate, undid what was a pretty solid shooting night for the Cougs. To keep up with the Utes, WSU will have to shoot well again from the floor, while continuing to get to the line at the same rate (they should make more free throws this time around, law of averages and blind hope and all that).

If those two things are happening, the absolute key is for the Cougs to hold onto the ball. The Utes aren't even particularly good at forcing turnovers, so it can be done.

There are a lot of "ifs" involved in the Cougs upsetting the Utes - if they play their best defense, if they shoot well, if they hold onto the ball, if Delon Wright breaks some obscure team rule causing him to sit out for all or part of the game - and that means a win is certainly a longshot.

But if the Cougs can play well, especially at the start when it is most likely that the Utes will be suffering any sort of Arizona hangover, then this could be a much more competitive game this time around.