Cougar basketball and the art of clashes

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More than 5,000 fans cheered on the Cougars in the game against Arizona. (Photo: Washington State University Photo Services)


AFTER DEPOSITED DUST during last night’s Washington State-Arizona men’s basketball game, won by the No. 4 ranked Wildcats 72-60, my mind flashed back to a conversation many years ago with Tony Bennett on Clark ivory.

Tony was in his first year as Cougars head coach and Ivory was a 6-6 senior New Orleans forward making a living in the air. He was a high-flying tour de force that helped guide the 2006-07 Cougars to a second-place finish in the Pac-10 and a second-round NCAA Tournament tilt.

Somewhere in the middle of this season, I asked Tony why Ivory’s minutes per game – an average of 24 – had dropped precipitously in a few competitions.

“It’s all about matchups,” Bennett said. “He’s great, he’s healthy – that’s only driven by how we play with the other team. That’s all it is.

Last night like Glenn Johnson introduced the starting formations, I did a slight double take when Noah Williams was not among the five Cougars. TJ Bamba started instead. Noah still played an important 19 minutes, but why didn’t he start?

Because, as Tony Bennet might say, it’s all about confrontations.

Bamba is the Cougars’ best perimeter defenseman. Williams is an exceptional defender but Bamba on the perimeter is tough as nails. So it made perfect sense for him to start the game with Arizona sniper Bennedict Mathurin, who is widely considered an NBA lottery pick later this year.

Mathurin finished with a game-leading 20 points, going 3 of 6 from downtown. But it was another matchup — WSU’s zone defense against the Multidimensional Wildcats — that made two of Mathurin’s treys possible and put the game out of reach.

cougar trainer Kyle Smith doesn’t run a ton of zone but he deploys it situationally to keep opposing teams off the pace and also to help Efe Abogidi and Mouhamed Gueye stay away from mistakes. With Dishon Jackson sidelined with an eye injury the past seven games, the Cougs have been using the D-zone a little more than usual because they’re thinner.

Midway through the second half, when the Cougs went into the zone, Arizona countered beautifully by driving the ball into the paint. Arizona big men Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko are so easy around the hoop that you’ll usually pay out if you don’t cross them when they have the ball in their hands. Alas, when doubled they can send the ball into the perimeter in a nice way, where guys like Mathurin expect open looks because the defense is preoccupied with painting.

Related: Gueye’s ankle is the only suspense in the WSU game against Arizona

In the span of 61 seconds last night — between 10:35 a.m. and 9:36 a.m. of the second half — Arizona had three straight possessions when the Cougs were in the zone. That put the Wildcats up by 18 and effectively sealed the deal.

It’s all about confrontations.

THE THREE TREYS IN By the way, 61 seconds is testament to the blistering pace of Arizona’s offense. They get a mountain of shots in 10 seconds or less.

You can probably make a small case for South Dakota State, but the Cougs really haven’t faced a team with that kind of pace. Coupled with Zona’s length and athleticism, it’s a tough game – especially with Jackson on the sidelines and Andrej Jakimovski treat a sore ankle.

On the plus side, the fact is the Cougs played a generally solid defense overall. They forced 18 turnovers in Arizona and held the Wildcats 13 points below their season average.

NOW ARIZONA STATE arrives in town Saturday at 7 p.m. (ESPNU). the The Cougars are 14-8 overall and 7-4 in the Pac-12 while ASU is 7-15 overall and 3-9 in conference following an 87-64 loss to the UW last night.

The Devils are however not to be neglected. They beat UCLA a week ago and played pretty strong Arizona a few days later. Plus, there’s the interesting no love lost dynamic between Bobby Hurley and Kyle Smith.

Interestingly, this will mark the first of nine games the Cougars will play in a 23-day window. This suggests Smith will have to dig into the depth chart to keep the legs fresh. So seek ryan rapp to get tricks in the backyard and Matt DeWolfdepending on Jackson’s eye recovery, to earn minutes in the front court.

From the archives: Ivory Clark, Cougs fire for NCAA Tournament first-round win

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