Washington State will do their best to avoid an 0-2 start in Pac-12 play this afternoon. It won't be an easy task with the surprising Oregon State Beavers coming to Spokane. OSU is off to an excellent start to the season and is full of talented players and a trapping style defense that could give the Cougars problems. Add that to the fact that the Beavers dropped their opener to the Washington Huskies and they may be desperate to validate their non-conference success.
In the first four years of Craig Robinson's Division I head coaching career his teams played at a slow pace. The trap defense that Oregon State has become known for was still there, but the offense was milking the clock in search of the perfect backdoor cut to the hoop. Beginning last year, the Beavers were starting to become an athletic ballclub and the tempo increased. This year OSU is 18th nationally in adjusted tempo, using a blistering 72 possessions a game. Their match-up with Chicago State on December 21st featured 91 possessions, easily the most for any game involving a Pac-12 team this year.
How will that pace affect the Cougars? Well, there isn't really much of a correlation between the pace played and their success. Additionally, when they play poorer teams the pace is generally slower as it is a common tactic for a physically over-matched team to limit total possessions. However, in WSU's fastest pace game this season, the opener against Gonzaga, they also had one of their best offensive performances (as well as one of their worst defensive performances). Gonzaga has a higher rated offense and defense than Oregon State, so the Cougars may be able to keep up, but OSU's method of speeding the game up may be what gives the Cougs problems.
More on that in the offense and defense previews after the jump.
Robinson's offense frequently uses a big man to run things from the top of the key. This season Joe Burton has taken that role. He has posted a good 23% assist rate, meaning he assists on 23% of his teammates baskets while he is on the floor. That is typically something you would see out of a point guard. As a whole, the Beavers style of offense lends itself to producing a high number of assists. They are 35th in the country in assists per field goal made.
The Beavers have a number of excellent offensive options on the floor. Jared Cunningham is among the conference's top players. He is very athletic and is dangerous inside the arc. He shoots 58% on twos and has the 50th best free throw rate among all qualified players in the country (that's thousands of players). Sophomore Devon Collier is a more traditional force on the inside with a 6-7, 206 pound frame. He is not suffering from a sophomore slump and has improved in almost every offensive category so far this season. He is 31st nationally in eFG% and like Cunningham, also takes frequent trips to the charity stripe.
The best outside shooters from Oregon State are sophomores Roberto Nelson and Ahmad Starks. Nelson is knocking down 43% of attempts while Starks is hitting 38%. Starks is in the game to shoot jumpers, as he doesn't create a whole lot of assists or free throw attempts. Angus Brandt will also take an occasional three and has had success, hitting 10 of his 22 attempts on the year.
Overall, threes are not a huge part of Oregon State's offensive game as they only account for 24% of their points (266th nationally). They have been among the best in the country at hitting twos, 55% as a team. Combine that with their 32nd-ranked free throw rate and defending the interior becomes paramount against them. With all the back-cuts, avoiding "ball-watching" is also key. This is something that Faisal Aden has struggled mightily with, as he is often looking to jump passing lanes for a steal. The Beavers likely know that, and look for them to exploit that match-up.
The Beavers are going to trap at half court and try to get as many steals as possible. This is far and away the most important thing to know about them. They've given up some pretty high effective field goal percentages to the better teams on their schedule (Texas, Vanderbilt, Washington), but forcing turnovers allowed them to beat Texas and hang with Vanderbilt. They didn't force turnovers against UW and were never really all that close in that game (the Huskies' win probability never dropped below its initial state).
Oregon State is 12th nationally in opponents' turnover percentage. They are ninth best in steal percentage. Cunningham has received defensive accolades throughout his career because he gets so many takeaways out of the 1-3-1. Holding onto the ball is very difficult against OSU, but doing so will ensure easier opportunities to score.
While WSU has been know to be turnover-prone this season, things have improved dramatically in recent games. The Cougs turned the ball over just 14% of the time against Oregon and have been below 19% in each of their last three games against Division I competition (it was high against Western Oregon...but that may be attributed to a higher number of bench players getting minutes and sloppier play against lower competition). On the season, the Cougs are now just about average in turnover percentage (around 21%).
The trapping will still pose a problem, as Reggie Moore is the most reliable ball-handler on the team and he still struggles with pressure. OSU will create turnovers in this one, it is just a matter of WSU trying to limit their own mistakes and taking advantage when they break the trap.
Coming into the weekend, this game certainly looked like the least winnable of the two, so there is definite cause for concern. The Beavers are a good team who will likely finish in the top half of the conference. KenPom has this game in favor of WSU 75-73, but it is little more than a toss-up. As mentioned on Thursday, the Cougs won't be gettng the same homecourt advantage they would in Pullman. That could certainly swing the game in favor of the Beavs.