Northwestern is on its way to Pullman, WA to take on Washington State in the quarterfinals of the NIT for the right to play at Madison Square Garden next week. The Cougars just beat Oklahoma State last night, but the two teams will play on Wednesday night at 10 p.m. CT on ESPN2. It's a quick turnaround for the Cougars.
It's also a quick turnaround for the blog here, but Joe Baker, (@WazzuEnthusiast
), was helpful enough to answer some questions about the Cougars before the game.
CCB: What were the pre-season expectations like at Washington State? Has this team exceeded them or missed the mark?
WE: Good question. If you took a straw poll of most Coug fans at the beginning of the year, I believe most (8/10) would have said that the NCAA tournament was the goal. Although there aren't any seniors on the roster, this team had a solid nucleus of experienced juniors (F-DeAngelo Casto, G-Marcus Capers, G-F Klay Thompson) to go along with a very talented sophomore guard in Reggie Moore and a highly-touted JC transfer G-Faisel Aden. The team got off to a hot start last year going 10-2 in non-conference play in Ken Bone's first year at the helm, but then faltered down the stretch losing 10 of its last 12 games to finish the year with a very disappointing 16-15 (6-12) record (and missing out on any postseason tournament). I think most people thought at the beginning of the year that the team would learn from this experience and get over the hump this year to make it to the NCAA.
With that said, the team fell short of the NCAA's this year, but they were involved in the dreaded "bubble" discussion up until a few days before Selection Sunday when they narrowly lost in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament to their rival (Washington) despite sweeping UW in the regular season. The final game against UW was played at an extremely-high level and saw Thompson go off for 43 points, a Pac-10 tournament record. (It should be noted that Klay was coming off of a 1-game suspension for possession of marijuana when he torched the Huskies. Many think that if he played in the game that he missed due to suspension - an overtime loss at home to UCLA - Washington St. would have won handily and been assured an at-large bid in the dance.)
CCB: The Cougars' defense is rated higher than their offense in Ken Pomeroy. Is this team truly defensive oriented?
WE: In my opinion the defense is very underrated. Casto is a very good defender on the low block and has given big men like UW's Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Arizona's Derrick Williams fits this year. In addition to being a scoring machine, Thompson has become a very good defender and shot blocker. Capers is one of the better on-ball defenders in the nation in my view and usually draws the opponent's best scorer as his matchup when the Cougs play man. (The Cougs generally play a rotating man/zone defense throughout the game as the situation warrants.) Aden has been a real thorn in his opponent's side this year as well and has a knack for poking the ball lose.
CCB: Tell us a little about star Klay Thompson's game. Is he the key player in this game?
WE: Wow. Where to begin? Klay is just a stud. Period. Most basketball fans are aware that he is the son of former NBA player (and first pick overall) Mychal Thompson. Klay is probably the most highly-touted recruit in WSU basketball history. He started as a true freshman and has not disappointed. Not only is he a pure shooter, but he has markedly increased his ability to get to the rim (and consequently, the free-throw line.) Moreover, he has found ways to get his teammates more involved in the offense due to the threat of his offense. When Klay is on from outside, it shows very early on in the game. Look for Klay to shoot early and often. If he is hitting his outside shots, it will be a very long day for the Wildcats in my view. If not, the Cougs will probably try to force the action down low with Casto, who has a very serviceable game around the rim.
CCB: Washington State likes to push the pace, Northwestern likes to slow it down. Who will control the pace?
WE: I have not seen much of Northwestern this year. I did watch the Wildcats' game against Boston College and was very impressed with the outside shooting. I was also highly impressed with John Shurna. I think the game will be somewhere in the high 60's to low 70's, similar to the Cougs' game against Oklahoma State (74-64). If the Cougs are not hitting their outside shots and/or getting out into transition off of turnovers then they will probably try to slow the pace themselves to get the most out of every possession.
CCB: I've heard some not so nice things about Pullman. What's your impression of it? Is it really that hard to get to?
WE: Who are these people that told you these things? I want names, addresses and phone numbers. All kidding aside, while Pullman is not for everyone, most alumni of "Ol' Wazzu" still call it home. Pullman is one of the few remaining "college towns" in the United States and it is certainly the only one in the Pac-10. Simply put, Pullman is Washington State University. It is tucked in the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse and is about 7-8 miles from the Idaho border. The closest urban population center is Spokane (where Gonzaga is located) about 80 miles to the north. Travel can be problematic at times. It takes us Seattle-area alums about 5-6 hours to get to Pullman by car depending on weather and the traffic on the two-lane highway that extends from the Columbia River to Pullman.
Not one soul has put into words what Wazzu means to its alumni more eloquently than former WSU football coach Jim Walden (1978-1986); he said: "I can't define it; I can't tell somebody who isn't a Cougar what it's like. There's something that happens at Washington State, you quietly and subtly become infected. There are very few people I've ever met who have gone to WSU and not come away with a favorable impression ... Washington State was a passion. Being a Cougar was a passion."
Thanks so much to Joe for doing this Q&A. Be sure to check out the game on Wednesday night.