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Men's Basketball Preview: Washington State Cougars

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Read up on Josh Hawkinson and the rest of the WSU roster before tomorrow's midday contest in Pullman.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Huskies (10-4, 2-0) at Washington State Cougars (9-5, 1-1), Saturday January 9th 12:00pm, Pac-12 Networks

Washington beat UCLA, in case you have already forgotten. Then WSU beat UCLA. Coug fans rejoiced, while UW fans worried about the big win being devalued. So, of course, UCLA knocked off Arizona in their very next game. Both UW and WSU have now defeated an opponent that is capable of beating Kentucky and Arizona.

It's been a strange season.

So how good are the Cougs, exactly? Is Ernie Kent seeing real progress in year two, or will WSU fade in conference play? I don't know. But at the very least, Kent's Cougs demonstrated against the Bruins that they are capable of beating talented teams that make the trip over to Pullman.

Projected Starting Five: G Ike Iroegbu (Jr., 6-2, 190), G Charles Callison (Jr., 6-0, 180), G Que Johnson (Jr., 6-5, 205), Junior Longrus (Sr., 6-7, 240), Josh Hawkinson (Jr., 6-10, 245)

Key Bench Players: C Conor Clifford (Jr., 7-0, 270), F Valentine Izundu (Jr., 6-10, 220), G Renard Suggs (Jr., 6-3, 200), F Derrien King (So., 6-7, 175), F Brett Boese (Sr., 6-7, 230)

We might as well start off with Josh Hawkinson, WSU's clear-cut best player. This is a little bit of a Brock Motum situation in terms of a Washington State team's best player being a highly productive, underappreciated forward. The difference is the level of talent around him.

Hawkinson has averaged 16.9 points (59% shooting), 10.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.4 blocks. That is stat sheet stuffing at its finest, and averaging over one block and one steal per game is an impressive feat for a big man. There's no reason to believe that production will taper off in the second half of the year, given that those numbers represent modest improvements over last season.

Longrus has often started games as Hawkinson's front court partner, but his minutes have been modest for a starter and his production limited to 3.0 points and 2.6 rebounds per night. Now a senior, he is who he is at this point. He is on the floor to hustle and defend and to complement those around him.

Que Johnson appears to have taken a big step forward in his junior year, going from an average of 6.1 points on 38% shooting to 10.6 points on 46% shooting. He has also seen his accuracy from beyond the arc jump from 36% to 41%. He chipped in 14 points on 5-11 shooting against the Bruins.

With these improvements, Que is now an efficient complementary scorer out on the wing, a type of player that has been in short supply for the Cougs as of late. He gives this team an offensive outlet beyond the primary ball-handler and Hawkinson.

For some reason it feels like Ike Iroegbu should be a senior instead of a junior. With the way he is playing this year, WSU fans are surely happy for the extra year of eligibility. Like Johnson, his offensive efficiency has taken a positive leap.

Ike is the second-leading scorer with 13.0 points on stellar 52% shooting, including 52% from beyond the arc. That is a big-time improvement over 43% from the field and 35% from deep last year, which were perfectly acceptable numbers in the college game to begin with.  His role as a distributor has also picked up, leading the team with 4.3 assists.

Rounding out the starting five is Iroegbu's partner in the back court, Charles Callison. The junior guard transferred in from San Bernadino Valley College and the pickup has paid dividends for Coach Kent. Callison has provided modest scoring, but his real value has been as a passer and a defender.

Callison lags just behind Ike in terms of assists with an average of 3.1, but he does it with fewer turnovers and in fewer minutes. He leads the team with 1.5 steals.

It has been years since the Cougs could claim three starting guards of this quality, and yet their best player does not count among them. That is promising stuff, especially with the only senior being Longrus, only a part-time starter and the most replaceable of the five.

The bench also shows promise. Clifford is a huge center who will undoubtedly be asked to do more than come off the bench next year as a senior. For now, he is a mismatch for around 12 minutes a night. He has had some scoring success, averaging just over 7.0 points on absurd 65% shooting.

Izundu usually starts if Longrus does not. Either way, he is going to block a ton of shots. The kid averages 2.7 rejections despite averaging less than 16 minutes. That is 6.8 blocks per 40 minutes, a.k.a. Robert Upshaw territory.

Clifford and Izundu represent impressive front court depth for Coach Kent. When is the last time the Cougs boasted both a true center and a shot-blocking extraordinaire off the bench?

Suggs is the first guard to rotate in, spelling Ike and Callison when necessary.  He scored 14 points in 16 minutes against UCLA. Derrien King, Ny Redding, and Viont'e Daniels all average at least 10 minutes, but the heart of the rotation is certainly Clifford/Izundu/Suggs.

All in all I think it will be a highly competitive game. Kent has assembled a surprisingly deep squad with players that seem to fit their roles. Two competent ball-handling guards, a complimentary wing scorer, a defensive four-man (especially if it's Izundu starting), and a double-double machine at the five looks awfully good on paper, and even better in Pullman.

The Huskies will be forced to really work defensively, and I worry about foul-trouble rearing its ugly head once again, especially for Chriss and Dickerson on Hawkinson.

Still, the biggest factor of all may turn out to be how Washington comes out offensively in its first true road game of the season. We know the Huskies have the pure talent to beat WSU. But if they come into a hostile environment for the first time all year and start out rushing shots and making sloppy passes, the Cougs may very well jump on them.

As the one player who has been in these situations many times before, I will be looking to Andrew Andrews to steady the ship. Murray's star may have been born in the comeback over USC, but he is still an up-and-down player. If and when he makes a mistake and the offense is mired in a drought, the Huskies will need Andrews and his ability to bail out the offense via free throws at will.

And yes, I do realize how odd it is to hear Andrews described as a calming force on offense given the context of his entire career, but the dude has simply grown.

Malik Dime will be another key given WSU's front court depth. Even if Chriss and Dickerson don't end up in foul trouble, Dime will still need to bang inside with the likes of Clifford and Izundu.

My apologies if this reads a bit scattered, but I'm simply not sure what to make of the added variable of playing on the road for what is already a young and uneven team. What do you folks think? How much should the setting matter? How confident are you in this young team to carry the momentum of last weekend's wins?

My Prediction: Washington 81, Washington State 77