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For WSU, road tilt with UW is an opportunity for a rivalry win -- and a resume boost

Feb. 1—PULLMAN — Washington State has traveled to face Washington tons of times. Just not with circumstances like these.

When Saturday evening arrives, the Cougars and Huskies square off for the final time in Seattle as Pac-12 adversaries.

For WSU, the matchup comes with extra NCAA Tournament intrigue.

As of Thursday, Washington was ranked No. 71 in the NCAA NET rankings, four spots inside the threshold of a Quadrant 1 win for Washington State. If the Cougs win, they'll almost certainly bump the Huskies down a few spots, thereby making the victory a Quad 2.

Thanks to one of the nation's easier nonconference schedules, WSU (15-6, 6-4 Pac-12) needs all the help it can get to break its 16-year NCAA Tournament drought, one of the longest in the country among Power Five programs. In this case, it might mean beating the Huskies — and rooting for them to put together a nice rest of the season afterward.

That's where all the wires begin to cross, and the Cougs' tournament hopes get a little hazy. For example, if UW goes on to beat California and makes WSU's loss to Cal a Quad 3. What happens if the Huskies pull off an upset over Arizona — is there any chance that WSU win gets knocked down to Quad 2?

In that way, the situation is out of the control of the Cougars, who can only do one thing to boost their chances: Win the games in front of them. That begins with Saturday's 6 p.m. tip-off from American Airlines Arena.

"It's a little too early to worry about it," WSU coach Kyle Smith said.

Smith and Washington State are only worried about Washington, which will also be coming off a week's rest. The Huskies (12-9, 4-6) have become something of an enigma, with five Power Five transfers and a set of confusing results: a narrow overtime loss to San Diego State, a double-OT win over Seattle U and a win over Gonzaga.

UW ranks second nationally in experience, with an average resume of 3.56 years, but it hasn't translated to wins the way coach Mike Hopkins would like. It makes Washington a bit hard to scout — but the Cougs have their eyes trained on a few players in particular.

The leader is Keion Brooks, a Kentucky transfer who leads UW with 20.6 points and seven rebounds per game, and a 41% mark from beyond the arc, making him the hub of the Huskies' offense, which prefers to play small and fast.

"Brooks is older. He's a great case why you should stay in college," Smith said. "I think he's gonna be an NBA player because he's just too good of a scorer. He can create baskets on his own, he gets out in transition and gets you easy baskets. He's a good finisher, and then he can bang (from the) midrange and 3, so he scores at all levels. He's just really confident."

There's also UW guard Sahvir Wheeler, another transfer who spent two years at Georgia and two more at Kentucky. Wheeler isn't the perimeter threat Brooks is — Wheeler is shooting just 27% on 3-pointers — but he's much more active as a penetrator. He also has an assist rate of 32%, which is No. 43 nationally. Pair him with 7-foot-1 Braxton Meah and you get a compelling trio.

"We've got some really good point guards in the league — he's probably got the best push and maybe the best penetrator," Smith said of Wheeler. "Starting with those two things is nice, and they've got good rim protection with Meah ... They're pretty complete, to be honest."

If there's good news for the Cougars, it's they've played a team with a similar offensive approach. In early January, when WSU dropped a home contest to Oregon, the Cougs fell in part because the Ducks' shorthanded lineup played too fast for WSU. Oregon may have shot well, but Smith maintains his team didn't play good enough defense, which has provided several lessons headed into Saturday's game.

The primary one is to guard the 3-point line, where Oregon hit 14 of 24 attempts. When the Huskies are playing at their best, they're driving and kicking, Smith said — which will require the Cougs to stay in front of their matchups and play solid point-of-attack defense.

Otherwise, UW will call on catch-and-shoot threats like Moses Wood to stretch the floor and punish WSU. That's where WSU wings like Jaylen Wells and Andrej Jakimovski may figure most prominently: If they can play good enough individual defense, they can slow Washington's offense from the beginning.

"We do have a little bit of a size advantage," Smith said, "but I think they offset it with their quickness and skill and speed. So it's kind of a battle of two different looks."

Win or loss, it's the beginning of a three-game road trip for WSU, which follows with games at Oregon State ( Thursday) and Oregon (Feb. 10). Through the lens of the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars could do themselves favors by avoiding a bad loss and securing a good one. On the court, though, they'll do their best to tune that noise out.