This week in WSU Hoops: A daunting task

D.J. SHELTON AGAINST ARIZONA LAST SEASON

WITH THE NEW YEAR comes the start of the Pacific-12 Conference season for Washington State, a second chance to salvage what has been a less-than-thrilling start to the 2013-14 season. The Cougars (7-5) have hardly exceeded expectations, if you're to believe the Vegas wiseguys -- and who wouldn't? They make their money on expectations.

The combined record of the five teams to beat WSU is 45-16. WSU was an underdog in all but one of those games; the Cougars were favored against Texas Christian, but it appears the Horned Frogs are better than expected.

Of Washington State's seven wins, only once were the Cougars an underdog, that to Purdue. The Boilermakers (No. 85) are the only team WSU has beaten rated among the country's top 100, according to the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. (FYI: WSU checks in at No. 116. Hey, it beats Washington, which is No. 140.)

So is there hope of a Pac-12 turnaround for the Cougars?

History says it will be an uphill climb. For starters, Washington State has lost five consecutive Pac-12 openers. It's likely to be six, as the Cougars open this season's Pac-12 slate at No. 1 Arizona.

It hasn't appreciably picked up from the Pac-12 opener, either. Last year, Washington State started the conference slate 1-5. In 2012, it was 1-4; in 2011, 2-3. The Cougars have had only one winning record at the midway point of the Pac-12 season (2010-11, 5-4) during Ken Bone's WSU tenure.

Bone's four-year Pac-12 record is 26-46.

The Pac-12 schedule does Washington State no favors. The Cougars open at Arizona and Arizona State, followed at home with No. 21 Colorado and Utah.

The combined record of those four teams is 46-5. Yikes.

The positives to the Pac-12 slate: only one game against Arizona, and no LA road trip.

At 7-5, the Cougars will exceed expectations if their final record is anywhere near .500. So far based on what I've seen, there's been no indication that will happen.

Cougs at Arizona, ASU


Arizona: 7 p.m. Thursday, Pac-12 Networks

The series: Wildcats lead 57-16

Arizona State: 3 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU

The series: Sun Devils lead 38-35


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The week ahead: Washington State kicks off the Pac-12 season on the road, Thursday at No. 1 Arizona (13-0), and Sunday at Arizona State (11-2).

Start the season on the floor of the No. 1 ranked team in the country. No pressure there. And the Cougars will be without their best player, Devonte Lacy, who is recovering from appendicitis surgery.

The Wildcats are No. 1, but opponents have been hanging with them. In Tucson, UNLV lost by five. In New York, Drexel and Duke lost to Arizona by a combined 10 points. Michigan lost 72-70 to the Wildcats in Ann Arbor.

But in order for the Cougars to upset Arizona, they'll have to play as well as they did during the second half against Purdue for all 40 minutes. And even that may not be enough.

After several years of turmoil, this is the Arizona we used to see: dangerous, Pac-12 title favorite, among the best teams in the country.

The Wildcats aren't exceptional on offense, as they rank just ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring at 76.3 points a game. But where Arizona separates itself from most teams is its defense. The Wildcats are giving up a Pac-12 low 56.7 points a game.

Now, on paper some might think WSU vs. Arizona is a match-up of the Pac-12's best defenses, as the Cougars are third in points allowed at 63.8. But defense isn't just about points allowed. A better statistic is field goal defense. Arizona is among the Pac-12's top three in field goal defense (.372) and 3-point field goal defense (.294), whereas the Cougars rank 11th in the Pac-12 in both categories.

Arizona is also tenacious on the boards, as the Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in rebounding margin at plus 12.5 per game. Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski all average about seven boards a game.

The Wildcats have a balanced scoring attack, led by Nick Johnson's 16 points a game. Also averaging in double figures are Ashley (12.5), Gordon (12.5) and Tarczewski (10.1). Guard T.J. McConnell ranks second in the Pac-12 in assists-turnover ratio.

The Cougars hardly get a breather three days later when they travel to Tempe to play Arizona State. The Sun Devils bring a four-game winning streak into Pac-12 play, and have a win over a top 25 team (Marquette). ASU's losses came to Creighton and Miami. In ESPN's Basketball Power Index, the Sun Devils rank No. 43, fifth best in the Pac-12.

The Sun Devils average 79 points a game, and give up 64. Like Arizona, ASU is gritty on defense, as it also ranks among the league's top three in field goal and 3-point field goal defense. Although Arizona State has one of the league's best rebounders in Canadian Jordan Bachynski (9.8 per game), the Sun Devils aren't exceptional on the glass; only Oregon State has a worse rebounding margin number than ASU.

ASU is the Pac-12's clear leader in shot blocking, at 7.2 per game. The 7-foot-2 Bachynski averages nearly five per game.

Arizona State's star is Jahii Carson, fourth in Pac-12 scoring at 19.3 points game. The 5-10 sophomore guard is a playmaker and scorer, as he averages 5.4 assists a game, while hitting .514 from 3-point range. The Sun Devils have two other double digit scorers in Jermaine Marshall (15.5 points per game) and Bachynski (12.5).

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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