These teams could not be more opposite. The Huskies are a team full of highly recruited athletes who get up and down the floor. They crash the boards and make their living at the free throw line (especially at home) and with second chance points. Conversely, the Cougars are composed mostly of under the radar recruits who play in a slower, grind-it-out system. They hang their hat on their ability to force opponents to work to get a shot, and forcing them to take poor shots while keeping position to prevent second chance opportunities. Fire, meet ice.
It's old hat to say that whichever team gets the other to play their style will have the advantage. We all know what the result is when that happens:
Over at Cougcenter they are making a huge fuss over Isaiah Thomas. And with good reason, as he is a shoo-in to win the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year award (sorry Klay, good season, just not good enough). Their claim is that by putting a taller, longer defender (Marcus Capers) on him they will be able to force him to alter shots and keep him from penetrating. The main flaw with that line of thinking is this: every defender Thomas has gone up against this year has been taller and longer than he is, and I have yet to see a single player stop I.T. on any sort of consistent basis when he makes a move toward the basket. At 5-8, Thomas doesn't often get his shots blocked and generally when he does defenders have to foul him to do so. He has shown the ability to blow by anyone who is in front of him and get up a shot regardless of who the defense has patrolling the paint. Putting a long defender on Thomas doesn't make sense because his entire life he has been shooting over and around them. The irony of the situation is that the one player in the conference who could probably guard Thomas is Washington's own: Venoy Overton. Which brings me to my next point.
The Huskies have been playing excellent perimeter defense of late, with Overton and Dentmon (and Thomas to a lesser extent) using their quickness to pressure ball handlers into turning the ball over. This has primarily come in the form of steals, which have lead to easy breakaway baskets. Overton's ability to frustrate opposing point guards this year has been impressive. He has not only been able to rattle second string point guards (as against UCLA), but has also managed to get starters out of rhythm as well (see: Daniel Hackett). The burden of getting in Taylor Rochestie's face falls upon Venoy's shoulders. The Cougars are not a good offensive team, and if you can take the ball out of Rochesties hands and keep him uncomfortable they go from "not good" to "just plain bad." As long as Overton keeps the ball under control on the offensive end, his play will be a huge plus for the Huskies.
Of course, it would be foolish to think that this game will not be primarily determined by the play of seniors Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon, Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie. You know what you're getting from Brockman and Baynes, but there is a lot of misconception surrounding Rochestie and Dentmon.
Rochestie can best be described as a good three point shooter, and a sub-par scorer otherwise who has been forced into a scorer's role as a result of Tony Bennet's failure to recruit a go-to scorer (or really, his failure to recruit at all) between his hiring as the head coach and his most recent recruiting class. Don't be fooled by the fact that he's their leading scorer; he is very unimpressive inside of the three point line, where he shoots just 40%. Justin Dentmon is shooting a higher percentage from long range and is dangerous when penetrating and shooting midrange shots (shoots 50%). Dentmon also turns the ball over at a lower rate, and fewer times per game and though he shoots a lower free throw percentage, he gets to the line more and scores more from the line. Dentmon also gets a lot of steals (something that no Cougar does) and gets his team out and running that way.
There's no denying that Rochestie has been huge for WSU over their recent 3 game tear, but has played every minute of the past 3 games, and 202 minutes in their last 5 games. The Cougars simply do not have the depth that the Huskies do which forces them to play Rochestie ungodly minutes. At some point it is going to catch up with him, be it Saturday or in the Pac-10 tournament. Dentmon's legs, however, are going to be much more fresh as his minutes have hovered right around 30 all year. The game against Seattle University will likely not play much of a factor in terms of these players' legs, as it was essentially a glorified layup drill for the Huskies and in fact the starters probably got more rest than they would have if they had run a practice instead.
Much commotion has been made about the Cougars defense. It is, in fact, a good one. However the assumption is that because the Huskies are good offensively, surely the must be substandard defensively. The same assumption is made about Justin Dentmon: he has become an excellent scorer, but surely he's a defensive liability. Of course, this is all bollocks. While the Huskies have lacked defensive focus the past couple of years, this year they are nearly as efficient on defense as the Cougars are. The difference between this year's team and last year's is twofold. Difference number one is the perimeter defense of Overton and company as I've already mentioned. Difference number two is the presence of shotblockers. Darnell Gant and Quincy Pondexter have both the length and athleticism to alter and deflect shots, which is imperative with Washington's rotational defense. Opponents have to think twice when they don't feel a double or pressure, because help is usually rotating over in time to contest their shot. The Cougars have addded a shotblocker of their own in DeAngelo Casto, and though inconsistent, he could be an annoyance for the Huskies because he's as adept at blocking shots as anyone in the conference.
Is there an edge in the coaching matchup? I don't think so. These two men have proven one thing: that they can win when they have superior talent and when they don't they struggle. Looking at the rosters, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that the Huskies have the superior talent in this matchup. Combined with the fact that they'll be playing for a conference title, in their last home game for the season, against their rivals, emotions will be high. The Huskies have been close to unbeatable at home this year, being the beneficiaries of generous Pac-10 officiating toward all home teams and the rejuvenation of the Dawg Pack.
On paper, the Cougars don't stand much chance in this one. Ken Pomeroy gives the Huskies an 80% chance of victory, but in rivalry games such as this, you can toss that out the window. I'm looking forward to a great game, and I'm hoping that superior talent and home court advantage prevail.