76 Classic 2011: WSU Vs. Oklahoma Preview

Washington State takes part in an ESPN-broadcast regular-season tournament for the second straight year as they take on the Oklahoma Sooners on Thanksgiving night. The Cougars come off a win at Portland in which they were able to maintain a double-digit lead for the majority of the game and keep the Pilots from truly threatening. Oklahoma dismantled Coppin State in their last game, and were able to completely control the offensive glass.

This game is interesting in that there are two major-conference teams that don't have huge expectations for the postseason and were projected in the preseason to be somewhere near the bottom of their respective conferences. For WSU fans, Oklahoma looks like a big name on the schedule, but that is probably more about the reputation the program built in the past than anything. 

Oklahoma returns several major contributors from a season ago, and has added a couple solid transfers to the mix. Additionally, they've brought in former UNLV head coach Lon Kruger. Kruger was very successful with the Rebels, building them into a perennial contender for the NCAA tournament.

Offense and Defense Previews after the jump.

OFFENSE

Oklahoma has not shot the ball well through their first two games this season. Against Idaho State and Coppin State, they managed to only muster a 47.9 eFG%. The Sooners may have lost their best shooter from a year ago in Cade Davis, and will be looking to replace that production with some returning juniors and transfer players.

Two guys that will be taking a lot of shots will be returners Calvin Newell Jr. and Steven Pledger. Newell is off to a good start, posting a 57.6 eFG% through two games. That number is buoyed by his 40% success from three-point land. Last year Newell only knocked down 27.1% of his attempts from long range. We will see if this is just a hot start or if he has improved his jumper. Pledger has played in just one game, but he lit it up while in there. He took eight three-point attempts in that game, and made three. WSU will definitely have to keep an eye on him.

Another important man will be Andrew Fitzgerald. The 6-8 forward was important in the offense a season ago and looks to figure heavily again. Fitzgerald is not a threat from outside at all and does all of his work from inside the arc. A season ago he hit on 48.6% of his field goal attempts. This year he has struggled out of the gate, making only six of 18 shots. 

Other Sooners to watch out for will be transfers Romero Osby and Sam Grooms. Osby does a lot of work inside the arc and is very efficient with his shot, having posted a 55.8 eFG% thus far. Grooms may not shoot much, but he will certainly set up others. The guard has a 21.8 assist rate this season.

Turnovers were an issue last season but that will likely change under new head coach Lon Kruger. Kruger's UNLV teams finished in the top 100 of turnover rate for each of his last five seasons, including finishing in the top ten twice. OU has posted a fairly high TO rate, but it is early in the season and a lot of backups played in their last game against Coppin State.

Grooms will be huge on whether or not the Sooners can take care of the ball. He has not done that yet, giving it away 23.8% of the time. Returning guardCarl Blair Jr. was a turnover machine a year ago, turning the ball over on 30.1% of his possessions. Not much has changed through two games, as he is still at 37.8%. Blair is important because he is a distributor on offense, posting the 31st best assist rate in the nation in 2010-11. Fitzgerald, Pledger, and Clark are all capable of taking care of the basketball and it will do well for Oklahoma to give them some more touches.

Oklahoma has seen a dramatic change in its rebounding ability this season. In my 76 Classic preview Q&A with Crimson and Cream Machine yesterday, we found out that Lon Kruger has put an emphasis on rebounding. So far, it has worked. OU is grabbing 52.3% of their own misses. 

Newcomer Osby has played a big part in that improvement. He is grabbing 17.1% of available offensive rebounds, which is far better than anything any Sooner produced a year ago. Tyler Neal and C.J. Washington will also be huge for OU on the offensive glass. It will important for Washington State to box out and improve on what they have done through the first three games of the season.

The Sooners are a below average team when it comes to drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. Their leading shot-takers in Fitzgerald and Pledger will get to the line on occasion, but it is not the most important part of their game. The guys to watch out for here are Grooms and Osby. Kruger has never had a great free throw rate team before, and it doesn't seem to be something that he emphasizes.

Oklahoma's offense has relied heavily on rebounding through the first two games of the season. They do provide some difficulties for Washington State in that regard and in the abilities of Grooms to push the ball. Pledger will test the Cougars' three-point defense. If WSU is unable to box out and control the boards any better than they have so far this season, they will be in for a long night on defense.

DEFENSE

The Sooners look to improve defensively under Lon Kruger. Kruger's UNLV teams finished in the top 60 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency each of his last six years. Compare that to Oklahoma's last Blake Griffin-less team who finished 171st. Kruger definitely has his work cut out for him, not many outside of Dick Bennett could pull that kind of miracle to turn a team that bad defensively into a above average squad in just one season (for the record, Dick took over a WSU squad that was 208th in adjusted efficiency in 2003 and led them to 77th in 2004. I heart him).

OU was terrible in defending the shot a season ago, particularly behind the arc. They allowed teams to knock down 36.2% of their three-point attempts. That has changed through two games, as Coppin State and Idaho State only hit 28.1% of their threes. WSU may be a nice measurement of the Sooners' improvement in three-point defense, as they have some guys in Faisal Aden, DaVonte Lacy, and Mychal Ladd who may be able to make them pay for defensive lapses on the perimeter.

It seems the Sooners have focused on defending the three at the expense of their 2-point defense. They weren't good inside the arc a year ago, and allowed their first two opponents to hit on 55.2% of their two-point attempts. This is despite an excellent block percentage of 19.0%. It would seem that when they aren't blocking shots, OU is giving up some very easy looks to their opponents. Brock Motum will be huge for WSU to take advantage of that weakness.

The good news for the Cougars is that Oklahoma has not been nearly as good rebounding the ball defensively as they have on the offensive end. The bad news is that they have still been solid, limiting opponents to 28.5% of their own misses. It remains to be seen whether or not OU can keep this up against better competition. The way the Cougars have been rebounding, they might have to wait another game for that test.

Turnovers have been easy to come by for the Sooner defense through two games. They have forced opponents into giving the ball away on 24.2% of their possessions. However, this may be more about what opponents are doing as rather than OU's defense. Oklahoma isn't stealing the ball much. As with every thing else, the question is whether or not they can maintain that turnover rate against better competition. WSU has to stay away from shooting themselves in the foot like they did against Portland.

Lon Kruger's teams haven't been very good at limiting teams from reaching the foul line. This year, the Sooners have been just about average in opponent's free throw rate. WSU has been very good at drawing fouls and this is an area in which they may be able to do well on the offensive end.

The Sooners have been a little bit above average on defense through two games, but the competition still leaves doubt as to whether how much they've improved. Most likely they will be better with Kruger at the helm, but this is still a game in which the Cougars can be efficient.

ADVANTAGES

Shooting: WSU. While both teams are poor at limiting the opposition, the Cougars are better equipped to take advantage of a bad defense. Their 56.7 eFG% is 22nd in the nation.

Turnovers: Oklahoma. This category likely will be very close. While both teams have their own specific players with turnover problems, Lon Kruger's teams have a history of forcing a lot of turnovers and it may just be part of his defensive style. I give OU the slight bump for that.

Rebounding: Oklahoma. WSU has struggled mightily on the glass this season, and the Sooners will not provide a respite. Even against bad competition, grabbing 52.3% of your own misses is ridiculous. Wazzu has played some overmatched opponents the last two games, and has still struggled. 

Free Throw Rate: WSU. Oklahoma's main shooters don't draw a whole lot of fouls. WSU has been very good at getting to the line in each of their games this season. OU has allowed lesser teams to be above average, and the Cougs should excel in this area.

Ken Pomeroy currently has this game as a toss-up. The Cougs are predicted to win 73-72 with just 51% confidence. Both teams have the ability to exploit weaknesses in the other. As kenpom says, it should come down to the final minutes. If WSU wants to have a chance, they will have to better rebounding than they have through the first three games of the season.

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