Washington State Cougars (25-7) vs. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (23-10)
When: Thursday, 2:40 p.m.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
1. Worst to, well, second. Without question, Washington State was the single most surprising team in a BCS conference this year. Coming off a last-place finish last season, and with Tony Bennett taking over as a first-time head coach from his father, Dick Bennett, the media picked Washington State as an overwhelming favorite to repeat that last place finish. However, the added maturity of an additional year, and the good health of a couple of key players (Derrick Low and Daven Harmeling), made an enormous difference to a team that had only had one senior last year. In fact, Tony Bennett has gotten off to such a flying start this season, with a 13-5 record in the Pac-10, that he could lose his next 85 straight conference games and still have a higher winning percentage in conference than his father's predecessor, the shockingly inept Paul Graham.
2. A motley crew. The Cougars' 13-year absence from the NCAA tournament, and the tremendous success of Gonzaga and, more recently, U Dub, certainly hasn't helped their recruiting in the state of Washington any. In fact, Washington State does not have a single scholarship player from the state of Washington. They do, however, have players from eight different states, and three foreign countries. Included amongst these are a long-haired Hawaiian point guard (Derrick Low) with a traditional tattoo covering the entire length of his right leg, a 6'10" Texan (Robbie Cowgill) who needs to eat 7000 calories a day to maintain himself at a svelte 210 pounds and a 6'10", 270 pound beast from Australia (Aron Baynes) that has come out of seemingly nowhere to have a huge impact in WSU's last two Pac Ten wins.
3. Like father, like son. Without question, the backbone of Washington State's success this season has been the defensive system developed by Dick Bennett. Throughout his career Bennett built a reputation as a defensive innovator. In fact, in a 1998 SI poll of Division-I coaches, Bennett placed third when they were asked, "If you could go to only one coaching clinic, whose would it be?" They certainly wouldn't be there to learn the offense that his Wisconsin team scored 41 points with against Michigan State in the 2000 Final Four. The Bennett Defensive philosophy is sometimes referred to as a pack-line defense. Alternatively, UCLA swingman Josh Shipp refers to it as "kind of weak." The basic idea is to pressure the ball and force it in the middle, while all other defenders stay within 17 feet of the basket; at practice they tape a line on the floor three feet inside the 3-point line. If the defensive system is working effectively, you will see no penetration to the baseline, quick traps by the other big man anytime the ball goes inside, a lot of forced, heavily contested jump shots and frustrated looks on the opponents' faces. If it's not working effectively, you'll see Wazzu lose, as they simply don't have enough firepower to succeed otherwise. — Ted Murray
ORAL ROBERTS GOLDEN EAGLES
1. So, Then, Why The Hell Are You At Oral Roberts? The Golden Eagles, in the tournament for the second year in a row, are defined by their star player, Caleb Green. He's a 6-8 forward who has won the Mid-Continent player of the year award three years in a row, which I guarantee will never happen again in any major conference. He's actually from Tulsa and, in high school, won the Jim Thorpe Award for the best athlete in the state of Oklahoma. He's best friends with fellow ORU star, guard Ken Tutt; together, the duo has won 83 games in their four years on campus.
2. They Beat My Official Tournament Favorite ... On The Road. I'm terrible at predicting anything, but right now, no team in the country, save for maybe Ohio State, looks better than Kansas. Well, these bad mofos from Oral Roberts won at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year, 78-71, way back in November. (This was after they had lost to Loyola Marymount.) Oral Roberts was the first job for current Kansas coach Bill "Toupee" Self.
3. Bears Repeating. I mentioned this in their tournament preview last year, but it absolutely must be mentioned any time the Golden Eagles are mentioned anywhere for anything. "The school was indeed founded (and humbly named) by Oral Roberts, who is most famous, of course, for telling his parishioners in 1986 that if they did not raise $8 million by March of that year, God would "call him home." (Sadly, we didn't get to find out if Roberts really had such a conversation with the Almighty; they hit the number.) Roberts has claimed to have personally raised the dead and, last year, said that a vision of a "cloud over New York" has told him Christ is coming soon. (After he dies, Roberts has told followers that he plans to return and rule the world with Christ.)" — Will Leitch
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(That's all of 'em for today, folks. Whew.)