Cougs look to realize California dreams

WSU men’s basketball faces two top-20 teams this week in Southern California



WSU guard Tyrell Roberts (2) jumps for a layup during the second half of an NCAA collegiate basketball game against Arizona State in Beasley Coliseum, Feb. 12.

AARIK LONG, Evergreen reporter

After starting their hardest stretch of the season with three straight losses, WSU (14-10, 7-6) heads to Los Angeles for their two toughest road games of the season against No. 13 UCLA (17-5, 9-4) and No. 17 USC (21-4, 10-4).

WSU started off the brutal span of play with a 72-60 loss to No. 3 Arizona last Thursday. The Cougs’ best chance to bounce back came two days later when hosting the Arizona State Sun Devils. However, that game finished with the Sun Devils earning a 58-55 victory.

Then on Monday, the Cougs started an extremely tough three-game road trip with a visit to Eugene, Ore., to face the Ducks. Despite WSU leading several times throughout the game, the Ducks were able to pull away for a 62-59 victory.

WSU nearly completed a comeback, turning a nine-point deficit into a three-point deficit within the span of 48 seconds. Oregon’s De’Vion Harmon missed a free throw with 11 seconds to go, giving the Cougs a chance to tie the game and force overtime. However, missed threes from Michael Flowers and Efe Abogidi in the final seconds sent WSU off with a third-straight loss.

“We gotta just freshen up as best we can, try to get recovered, try to get some ice baths, try to get our mind right,” WSU head coach Kyle Smith said on how the team will prepare for the quick turnaround. “We played really hard … We gotta toughen up and see what we’re made of.”

With losses to the top team and third-best team in the conference in the last week, the Cougs will now face the second and fourth-ranked teams in the conference.

At 8 p.m. tonight, the Cougs get the set of LA games going with a visit to Pauley Pavilion. The No. 13 UCLA Bruins have gotten the best of the Cougs in seven of the last nine meetings, but it is WSU who currently holds a winning streak in the series with an 81-73 win at home last season.

The UCLA team last season would go on to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, ending their season with a three-point overtime loss to Gonzaga in the National Championship game. This season has been going well for the Bruins, having earned some big wins against both No. 3 Arizona and No. 4 Villanova.

UCLA is led by Johnny Juzang, who is averaging 17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. In conference play, Juzang has been even more dominant, averaging 18.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

UCLA has been dependent on interior scoring this season, currently sitting as the second-best team in conference play in two-pointers made per game. Conversely, the Bruins are 12th and 11th in conference play in three-pointers made and attempted, respectively. 

Big men Mouhamed Gueye and Abogidi will be primarily responsible for protecting the paint for the Cougs, with WSU still holding out hope that Dishon Jackson will return to action. Jackson was around for warm-ups in the last two games but did not appear in either game. His abilities are questionable as he is coming off of an eye surgery.

UCLA has been a good defensive team this season, averaging in the top half of the conference in almost every metric and in the top third of the conference in a good chunk of those as well.

WSU has been struggling offensively recently. Over the course of this three-game losing streak, the Cougs are shooting 31.7% from the field and 26.5% from three-point range. Both of these sit well below the season percentages of 47.3% and 33.3%. 

This season, WSU is averaging 71.3 points per game, which is only the 178th best in all of Division I. Over this three-game stretch, the Cougs are averaging 58 points per game. There are only three teams in the nation averaging less than 58 points per game this year.

The Cougs will follow the meeting with the Bruins with a game against No. 17 USC on Sunday. The Trojans got the better of WSU earlier this season in Pullman, winning 63-61. WSU is currently in the midst of their longest-ever losing streak to USC, with the Trojans taking home victories in each of the last 11 meetings.

USC is led this season by Isaiah Mobley, who is averaging 14.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Mobley is shooting 45.7% from the field and 39.4% from the three-point range. 

If WSU hopes to win this game, the Cougs will have to capitalize on USC’s poor perimeter defense. The Trojans are forcing opponents into the worst shooting percentage in league play on the interior this season, with opponents shooting just 40.6% within the three-point line. Outside of the line, things shift entirely, with opponents shooting the best three-point percentage in the Pac-12 at 37.9%.

Both games are set to be played in LA. For Cougar fans not able to attend, the games will be nationally broadcast live on FS1.