PULLMAN — Washington state is looking for a rebound at home against a high-level opponent the Cougars stunned on the street earlier this month. The visiting Arizona Wildcats seek revenge.
WSU (9-12, 4-6 Pac-12) dropped games in Utah and Colorado last weekend. Prior to their disappointment against Pac-12’s Mountain Schools, the Cougars were on a three-game winning streak that began when they defeated No. 5 Arizona on Jan. 7 in Tucson.
The 74-61 win over the Wildcats will go down as one of WSU’s best wins of all time — it was the Cougs’ first away win in program history over a top-five opponent and ended Arizona’s 28-game winning streak in the McKale Center.
“We’ve had some success at certain things (in this game) but they’ve also gotten a lot of good looks that they’ve been missing. We were lucky,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said on Tuesday. “I’ll be honest. It was a great win, but you look at the movie, ‘We’ve got some good looks. We don’t have to change what we’re doing.'”
The sixth-ranked Wildcats (17-3, 6-3), who are No. 10 in the nation according to KenPom.com efficiency rankings, successfully defeated the Los Angeles Schools. Arizona finished 5th at UCLA 58-52 on Saturday.
WSU hosts Arizona at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Beasley Coliseum. The Cougs’ last home win against the Wildcats came in February 2010. Since then, WSU has been 0-9 against the Cats in Pullman. The Cougars are 2-16 in the series since beating Arizona in the 2009-10 season.
“Hopefully our psyche hasn’t damaged too much from the road trip (last weekend) and we can sit down and get a little healthier and give a good push on Thursday,” Smith said. “Both teams come in great.”
The Cougs will entertain Arizona State (15-5, 6-3) at 5 p.m. Saturday. WSU lost 77-71 to the Sun Devils on Jan. 5 in Tempe, Arizona.
A school sweep in Arizona would breathe new life into a somewhat unpredictable WSU season. The Cougs have been up and down all year, with a handful of impressive victories mixed with deflationary results and a few narrow losses to high-ranked opponents.
“We’ve proven that we can play with a lot of teams, good teams, whether it’s UCLA at home (loss one point on Dec. 30) or Baylor on the road (loss six points on Dec. 18).” Smith said: “And of course Arizona on the road. It would be nice if we could put in a big effort. … It’s just part of the structure of our program. We’ve had some unfortunate health issues. We bit off a lot in our schedule to take this program to a higher level.
Two WSU captains are playing through injuries
Standout center Mouhamed Gueye had his worst game of the year in a 58-55 loss to Colorado on Sunday. The 6-foot-11 sophomore captain remained scoreless for the first time this season. He shot 0 of 7 from the field.
Gueye played with a pinched Achilles tendon, Smith said.
“If it’s a hamstring[injury]it can be difficult,” Smith added. “I don’t really know about him because he’s such a stud. He didn’t apologize at all. He knows he didn’t play well. It’s rare these days. He’s a guy who will try to play no matter what. I know some guys who are in his position where he has a future (professional) to take care of…some guys won’t (play). I appreciate him very much for that.”
Gueye, the Cougars’ top rebounder (7.9 per game) and No. 2 leading scorer (13.3 ppg), is cleared for the game against Arizona.
“Mo is the rising tide, so to speak. He’s bringing all the ships,” Smith said. “We need him to be the impactful player offensively that he can be and was.”
Gueye put on one of the most impressive performances of his career in the first clash with Arizona, scoring 24 points and catching 14 rebounds.
Two of the Pac-12’s best big men will go head-to-head on Thursday when Gueye takes on Arizona’s Oumar Ballo, who is averaging 16.1 points and 9 rebounds per game.
“Ballo is a massive human being,” Smith said of the 7-foot, 260-pounder.
The Cougars occasionally send a jumbo-sized lineup that includes both Gueye and 7-foot rookie Adrame Diongue, whose productivity has seen an uptick in recent weeks.
“It’s all about Adrame turning out to be a guy who gets better every week and every game,” Smith said. “(If) we play them together it makes us a lot better defensively. We weren’t that good offensively, but Adrame will become a really good player over time. … He’s easy to play with as long as he throws some great backdoors (passes). He can be offensive out there. With those two out there, we should be a better offensive rebounding team.”
Smith expects to use the two-center look in pushes against Arizona in hopes of capping a talented frontcourt led by 6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis, an All-Pac-12 player who is in the conference with cites 19.9 ppg.
“Tubelis hurt us last time. He’s hard to stop,” Smith said of the 245-pound junior, who had 29 points and 14 rebounds in the first game against WSU.
Cougs guard TJ Bamba returned to the lineup against Colorado after missing the previous three games with a non-dominant hand injury. Bamba, captain and the team’s top scorer (15.2 ppg), posted a team-high 18 points against the Buffaloes.
“It was nice to have Bamba back and just guard the ball and take turns stopping the ball,” Smith said of the junior, who is also WSU’s strongest fullback. “He was great. He really gave us a chance to win this game. … He’s the only guy on our team who can really get to the basket and score. He backtracked us a bit, put us in the lead (late) but we weren’t able to get the stops we needed to finish the thing. He’s a captain. He is our leader and hopefully he keeps getting better.”
Bamba had his left hand wrapped on Sunday and will likely have to play through the injury for the foreseeable future, Smith said.
“It will carry him. It’s not 100%, but he played great,” said the coach. “We obviously missed him against Utah.
“We need Mo and Bamba. They don’t have to play all-league caliber, but they both have to play pretty well. We are counting on them a lot.”
3-point fights that are flashy in swing
WSU still ranks at the top of the Pac-12 in 3-point marks (8.6 per game) and percentage (36.1%), but the Cougar shooters were off in losses to Utah and Colorado.
The Cougs seemed to force shots and went 10-of-39 from 3-point land in those two games. WSU used crisp ball motion to free shooters, hitting 31 of 76 (40.8%) from long range during their three-game winning streak.
“Colorado really bothered us with their pressure,” Smith said. “We flipped it 17 times. We had too many one-pass balls, but that was attributed to her pressure. Utah is really good at guarding the 3 but geez I thought we had some good looks.
“We’ve got to get tougher and fight for shots a little bit better.”
The Cougs’ two top 3 point shooters, guards Jabe Mullins and Justin Powell, are in the midst of cold spells. Mullins is 2 of 11 of 3 and has averaged 6.3 points over the last four games. Powell is 2 of 10 from long range and has averaged 6.3 points over the past three games. The two combined for 14 points but shot 0 of 3 from deep against Colorado.
“It’s a little bit that we played through Mo and he struggled,” Smith said. “If he’s struggling, teams can hold onto those two for a little bit. It’s hard on the street. Justin and Jabe are like all college guys. They’re in really prominent roles that they haven’t been in for a while. That’s part of the development process, learning how to handle a tough scout on the road.”
Mullins, a junior transfer from Saint Mary’s, leads the Pac-12 with a 47.1% mark (40 of 85) out of 3. Powell, a junior transfer from Tennessee, has a team-high 43 triples at a solid 38.4%.