Washington State travels to Salt Lake City for their first road conference game of the season as they take on Utah tonight at 6pm Pacific Time. The Cougars salvaged a weekend split with a somewhat surprising victory over an athletic Oregon State team last Saturday and look to make it two conference wins in a row as they face the Utes.
Utah's basketball program is currently decimated in a way that fans of Washington State football can probably relate. There have been eight scholarship players defect from the program in the last two seasons and what's left is a team that would struggle in even some of the nation's worst one-bid conferences. Most Coug fans probably consider Paul Graham's teams at WSU to be among the worst to ever play in major conference college basketball. Well, this Utah team makes even those Graham teams look good.
In terms of Ken Pomeroy's rankings, Utah will be the second-worst Division I team that WSU will play all season. Only Grambling State, who currently holds down the bottom spot on the rankings, is worse. After a 40-point drubbing at the hands of Colorado, the Utes find themselves ranked 336th out of a possible 345 teams. This would put them as the 9th best team in the SWAC, which is currently the worst conference in the nation.
To state the obvious: This is a game Washington State should not lose, and it would painfully embarrassing if they did.
To Utah's credit, they have played better at home. Both their wins, over Idaho State and Portland, came at home. They played surprisingly well in a 19-point loss to BYU, holding the Cougars to one of their worst offensive performances of the season. Of course, they preceded that with a 31-point blowout at the hands of Cal State Fullerton.
It will be interesting to see how Utah impacts the conference standings, as not every team will play them twice. Ken Pomeroy has them at a 45.5% chance to post a winless record in Pac-12 play. That means their chance to win more than zero conference games is little more than a toss-up.
Offense and Defense previews after the jump.OFFENSE
The most important man on offense for Utah is senior guard Josh Watkins. In fact, he might play a bigger role on offense for his team than any player in the country. He leads the nation in percentage of possessions used and in assist rate. He is twelfth in shot%. When he is on the floor, he takes 36% of his team's shots and assists on 53% of their made baskets. His usage makes 2010 Klay Thompson look like a role player.
Unfortunately for the Utes, his effectiveness is nowhere near Thompson's. Watkins has a miserable 88.6 ORtg (remember 100 is average) and just a 42 eFG%. This is not an indication of his true talent level, as few players could excel with that much pressure and so little supporting cast, but it does show that he has too much of a burden placed on his shoulders.
The only player for the Utes with an above-average ORtg is 6-10 junior Jason Washburn. He is having a solid season, making 60% of his field goals and shooting almost 80% from the foul line. He is the most frequent recipient of Watkins's assists.
Chris Hines and Cedric Martin are the biggest threats from the outside. Hines has taken 62 threes this year and knocked down 20 of them (32%), so he will likely get in his fair share of attempts this evening. Martin has been more efficient, hitting 35% of his three-point shots.
Utah really doesn't do anything well on offense and their biggest problem is probably their inability to make shots. They are 280th in the country in effective field goal percentage and 314th in three-point percentage. They won't crash the boards much and play at a very slow pace. They'll slow it down even more when they face better teams, as their games against BYU and Colorado featured just 59 possessions. For comparision, WSU usually plays at around 68 and the national average is 67.
WSU just needs to play sound defense. There is no reason to take risks here. Getting a hand in the face of shooters and boxing out will be more than enough to hold Utah down. They do not have a lot of talent on offense, so there is no reason to gamble and make open looks easier to find.
Outside of that previously-mentioned performance against BYU, Utah's defense has been downright awful. The Utes are 341st in opponents' three-points percentage and pair that up with a 304th ranking in 2-point percentage. Opponents take threes on 38% of their shots and they account for 35% of the points, thirteenth most of any team's opponents in the country.
The Utes don't force many turnovers (325th in turnover percentage) and they aren't good at securing the ball on the rare chance the competition misses (261st in defensive rebounding percentage). The only thing that Utah does well is keep the opponent off the free throw line. This is probably a product of the teams finding it easy to get open looks and not needing to force the issue towards the basket.
Normally the end of the preview is where things are wrapped up and the key points on what WSU needs to do to win are summarized. For tonight, the Cougars need to just play their game and they don't need to do it perfectly. They are better at every position on the floor. Just move the ball around, open shots will be there. Just stay down on defense, it won't be tough to stay in front. Kenpom.com predicts this as a 75-58 Washington State victory with 93% confidence.
Hopefully they won't let this be one of the seven situations out of a 100 where Utah would win.