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Discussing The Washington State Cougars With CougCenter

In order to keep all of our readers up to date on who we are playing and what they bring to the table, we have brought in Jeff Nusser from CougCenter, SBNation's excellent WSU blog. Jeff has also asked me some questions, which should be on his site later this evening. I will post a link when that occurs. Here are my answers at CougCenter.

Right now, Washington State is 11-8 on the season, going 3-4 in Pac-10 play thus far. Their losses include Gonzaga, Baylor, UCLA, USC, Pittsburgh, and Washington.

We play the Cougars on Thursday evening at 7:00 PM mountain time. Check back here on game day for the run-up to tipoff.

Despite having 8 losses on the season, I would say that none of your losses are bad, and in fact every one of those are quality losses. What does your team need to do to take themselves to the next level and win those close games against quality opponents?

It's pretty simple: The offense has to be better. The offense really had a difficult time adjusting to the losses of Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low, and it was simply atrocious in the nonconference schedule against quality opponents. I chalked it up to Tony Bennett relying on his upperclassmen, who all have experience, but lack a certain degree of athleticism. (Freshman Klay Thompson was the notable example, as he's been a starter since day one.)

As the season has progressed, he's relied more and more on his much more athletic freshmen (such as Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto) and the offense has steadily improved to the point where it's good enough to win Pac-10 games. But it's still inconsistent. If the Cougs truly want to make some noise, they need to bring it from game to game and half to half, because the defense is still spectacular.

Who does ASU need to worry about most, and what can he do to hurt the Sun Devils?

The answer you're probably expecting is Aron Baynes, but I don't think he's the guy you should be worrying about. Baynes, while effective with the ball in his hands, simply isn't dynamic enough in the post to take a dump-in and contend with a collapsing zone. He's going to need help from his point guard to get the ball to him in spots where he can score.

The guy I'll bet Sendek is most intent on containing is point guard Taylor Rochestie. He's the offensive leader of the team, and after a tough start to the season, put together a stretch of five really excellent offensive games before Saturday's stinker against USC. If the Cougar offense is going to be effective against that very good ASU zone, penetration by Rochestie with the purpose of finishing at the rim, hitting a midrange jumper, finding Baynes, or kicking out to a shooter is going to play a big role.

One clue that you're doing a good job containing him is if he seems to be taking a significant amount of shots. When he's having too hard of a time getting the ball to his teammates or their missing too many shots, he tends to try to take over by shooting the ball. The only problem is that he's not really good enough to do that, so advantage ASU if that happens.

ASU plays a 2-3 zone, rotating heavily with short forwards on the bottom sides. This creates mismatches down low for teams with quality bigs, and puts a lot of pressure on the zone to collapse, thus allowing a lot of long distance shooting to occur. Can Washington State light it up from downtown enough to push the Devils out of their "comfort zone"?

This is why I'm not real optimistic about our chances on Thursday. Consider:

* The designated sharpshooter of the past two years, Daven Harmeling, is in a horrible funk -- 2-for-15 on 3s in Pac-10 play, and he didn't even get off the bench against UCLA;
* Rochestie can shoot, but it's tough to do with the ball in your hand most of the time;
* Nikola Koprivica is having the best 3-point shooting season of his career ... at 30.1 percent;
* Redshirt freshman Abe Lodwick has a sweet stroke, but it hasn't translated yet -- he's just 3-for-24 on the season;
* And Thompson can shoot, but he's been inconsistent from long range (although he did hit 3-of-5 against USC).

The team shoots 33.1 percent overall, so the easy answer is no, they won't hit enough to punish the Devils for cheating inside. But here's the thing -- we know Harmeling and Lodwick aren't as bad of a shooters as they've shown, and we keep thinking they're going to really bust out at some point. But it hasn't happened yet, and we're all starting to wonder if it's ever going to.

You have 11 games left in the season. What is a realistic finish for your 11-8 Cougs?

Sometimes, I think we can finish strong. We went toe-to-toe with UCLA in a performance that was not a fluke. We thoroughly outplayed USC for 35 minutes. Yet, we lost both games, which leads me to wonder just how good this team really is. I think a realistic finish is 5-6 over the final 11, putting the Cougs at 16-14 and 8-10 in the conference -- somewhere around 5th to 7th place and headed for the NIT or CBI.

Who is the best team in the Pac-10 that you have played so far? Cal, Washington, UCLA, and USC all look pretty good this year.

Tough call. The team that played the best against us was UW, but we clearly were not the same team at that point in the season that we are now. If you held my foot to the flame, I'd probably go with the Huskies, simply because they are a much more well-rounded team than the other three. Cal has fallen apart lately, UCLA has major flaws on offense and doesn't rebound, and USC just doesn't have enough scoring threats. The Huskies can beat you a number of different ways, they've got a game-changer in Isaiah Thomas, and the scariest part is that they're only going to get better as the season goes on. Can't wait to watch you guys clash with them on Saturday.

Finally, how will the Cougars fare on the gridiron in 2009?

Probably not very well. But there is hope that this year won't even remotely resemble last year. Wulff redshirted a ton of guys this year, guys who probably would have seen significant time this year under normal circumstances. There's help in this recruiting class at wide receiver, and the offensive line, which was brutal thanks to injuries, should be better with health and continuity. The fact that it will be the second year in Wulff's systems -- which were vastly different from Bill Doba/Mike Price -- will be a benefit as well. But realistically, we're looking at 8th to 10th place again.