WSU aims to chase Runnin’ Utes

From staff reports

Searching for a signature win, the Cougars travel to Salt Lake City today to take on the No. 11/12 Utah Utes.

Washington State (9-8, 3-2 in Pac-12) has been playing well of late, but suffered a setback last Saturday night against the Oregon State Beavers. The Cougars couldn’t get anything going offensively all night in a 62-47 loss.

The Utes (14-3, 4-1) are coming off of a loss to now No. 7 Arizona on Jan. 17. Utah kept it close until halftime, but Arizona cruised to a 69-51 victory. Prior to the game against Arizona, Utah had been coasting through Pac-12 play, winning their first four games. In those victories, Utah’s average margin of victory was an astounding 24.5 points. Head Coach Ernie Kent said it’s no coincidence Utah has a high a ranking.

“They are an excellent, excellent basketball team, they deserve their ranking,” Kent said. “They ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw with Arizona, and that crowd and emotion in Arizona coming off a loss, and those types of things. I think for us, it’s going to be a very tough opponent going in there to play.”

The Cougars will have to come out with intensity in hopes of keeping Utah down after their previous loss. Part of that process will be regaining their energy after playing three hard-fought games last week. Kent said going to see the movie Selma as a team bonding exercise is very important to their success going forward.

“It’s important for us to do that together, it’s important for them to understand why this day is so important,” Kent said. “So we’re going to step away from basketball for a minute, we’ll do a little bit in the weight room but we need to get our energy back, we need to get more of our passion and commitment to each other. This will really help this team out as we leave tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and go on the road.”

Utah is led by senior guard Delon Wright, who can do it all on the court. Wright is averaging 15 points per game in addition to 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds per contest.

Wright may very well be the most important player to their team. Utah is talented all-around, but Wright is the type of player who makes those around him better. Kent said in his press conference that Wright will be a challenge for the Cougars.

“The great ones can do it at both ends,” Kent said. “Michael Jordan, Lebron (James), Kobe (Bryant)… and I’m not saying he’s those guys, but he has that ability to anticipate both ends of the floor so he can change the game or dominate the game on the defensive end – steals, blocks – as well as on the offensive end – drives, scoring, dishing the ball- so it becomes a matchup nightmare because he’s so good at both ends of the floor.”

WSU has been led this season by senior guard DaVonté Lacy and sophomore forward Josh Hawkinson. Lacy leads the team with an average of 17.4 points per game while Hawkinson is putting together a breakout season averaging 15.4 points per game while also grabbing 11 rebounds per contest. However, the Cougars have also seen significant contributions this season from sophomore guard Ike Iroegbu and junior forward Brett Boese. Both players have emerged this season as impact players for WSU.

The key for the Cougars will be to have control of the tempo. Utah plays fast like WSU, but takes care of the basketball. The Cougars will have to force Utah into committing turnovers in order to give WSU an opportunity at winning the fast-break game and scoring in transition. Utah will be looking for similar chances so the Cougars will have to stay within themselves and play with good ball security.  

Another interesting match-up to watch is not only how WSU will fare against defending Wright, but also Utah’s promising young freshman center Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl stands 7 feet tall and has averaged 9.1 points per game with 7.6 rebounds to go along with 2.1 blocks in 23.6 minutes of action. Kent said players such as Poeltl who come from Europe have to be scouted differently.

“Because they’ve (European players) played at such a higher level of basketball you really can’t call them freshman, even though they are age-wise, but they’re very mature players,” Kent said. “They’ve got a gem in him (Poeltl), he’s going to be a very good basketball player.”

WSU has Hawkinson and senior center Jordan Railey there to defend Poeltl. They will have to keep him off the glass to prevent Utah from controlling the glass. The Cougars will undoubtedly have their hands full between Wright and Poeltl.

Kent and the Cougars will look to win their third straight Pac-12 conference road game for the first time since the 2007-2008 season. The game against the Utes will begin tonight at 6 p.m. and can be seen on the Pac-12 Networks.  

Reporting by William Cheshier