The Washington State Cougars look to snap a three-game losing streak tonight as the Utah Runnin' Utes visit Beasley Coliseum at 8 p.m.
The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and can be live streamed via Fox Sports Go if you have the proper subscription. You also can listen to the Washington State IMG Sports Network's broadcast of game with Matt Chazanow online via TuneIn.com.
After a promising start to the season that included a bunch of wins over inferior competition, the Cougars have come back down to earth, losing six of their last eight contests, including four of their first five in Pac-12 play.
The biggest culprit, as it was last season, has been the defense; the Cougars are giving up a whopping 1.16 points per possession in Pac-12 play, last in the conference by a wide margin. Some of that is due to playing some of the better offenses in the league over the first five games, and in that respect, WSU gets a bit of a reprieve tonight -- the Runnin' Utes (who aren't really into runnin' this year) are dead last in offense in the Pac-12 on a per possession basis through their first five games.
The Cougars' main concern tonight will be Jakob Poeltl, a nimble sophomore 7-footer who is making a strong case for the NBA lottery with each passing game. He's devastating in the paint -- 85 percent of his shots come at the rim, per hoop-math.com, and he finishes those at a ridiculous 68 percent rate. Even more amazing is that he does the bulk of that work himself: Only about half his makes at the rim are assisted.
Once upon a time, 2-point defense was the strength of WSU's much improved defense. But with Valentine Izundu sidelined the past four games with a foot injury, his rim protection has been sorely missed. Truly, the best chance WSU probably will have against Poeltl tonight is to try and keep him from catching the ball at all.
The other good news from WSU is that the main culprit behind their pitiful defense has been extraordinarily hot shooting from beyond the arc. The Runnin' Utes, though, are shooting under 30 percent from out there in their Pac-12 games. That might be a small sample size, but they also weren't shooting that great from out there in non-conference.
Perhaps the Cougs are due for some regression to the mean in terms of their opponents' offensive output.
Utah is still strong on defense under Larry Krystkowiak, though. His squad ranks 61st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, thanks largely to being exceptional in three areas:
- Defending 2-pointers (Utah is 18th nationally in opponent 2-point percentage)
- Limiting second chance opportunities (43rd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) and
- Keeping opponents off the free throw line (7th! nationally in opponent free throw rate)
While 2-point percentage is a place where WSU has typically been strong offensively, the Cougars also are an excellent perimeter shooting team (something it seems like a lot of fans don't realize), and Utah has struggled to defend shots at the arc. That could be something for WSU to exploit. Interestingly, the Cougars have been much better recently at drawing fouls after not doing so for much of the season, and it will be curious to see who has the advantage here.
Additionally, Utah doesn't take the ball away from opponents much. We know WSU is often far too generous in terms of giving it away, so the Cougars will need to simply not screw up too much on that front, otherwise they will make a very tough defense that much tougher.
Kenpom.com projects this as a coin flip of a game. Hopefully it will be entertaining.