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WSU hosts Rider as Cougs hope to avoid another embarrassing result

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It’s probably actually going to be tough to do.

CJ Elleby has been a pleasant surprise for WSU.
William Mancebo/Getty Images

It’s been a rough week or so for the Washington State Cougars, starting with a mind-blowing loss to the Montana State Bobcats, then continuing with the unexpected transfer of reserve forward Arinze Chidom — the 13th such transfer from Ernie Kent’s program in his four-plus seasons.

It might not get better tonight when the Rider Broncs visit Beasley Coliseum for a 7 p.m. tipoff on Pac-12 Network.

You might be thinking to yourself: “Why on earth would a private school I’ve never heard of in Lawrence Township, NJ, with an undergraduate enrollment of 4,000, which competes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, present a particular problem for WSU at home?”

Putting aside the fact that WSU just lost to MONTANA STATE, the easy answer is that Rider isn’t half bad, while the Cougs are actually mostly bad — the Broncs are ranked 50 spots ahead of WSU in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric, similar to Utah or Stanford.

Rider (4-3) has handled its bad opponents by an average of 18 points while losing to quality opponents UCF and West Virginia and a pretty decent Hofstra. The same can’t be said of WSU and its 5-3 record, with losses to aforementioned MSU, Seattle U, and New Mexico State.

It’s a matchup that kenpom.com projects Rider to win in 54 percent of the simulated games, although only by a point. If you’re looking for a silver lining, that’s pretty close to a virtual coin flip, so in theory the Cougars have more or less as good a chance to win as they do to lose!

(This probably wasn’t what Kent had in mind when he scheduled Rider as part of the easiest non-conference schedule in the entire country. Alas.)

The Broncs are a really good perimeter shooting team — they’ve made 42 percent of their threes this season, seventh nationally. You might remember that the Cougs are fresh off getting torched from three by Montana State, something that’s been a persistent defensive problem in Kent’s tenure. The interesting thing is that despite their prowess, the Broncs shoot threes at one of the lowest rates in the country; additionally, 87 percent of their made threes come via an assist, which is above average.

One more data point for you: Rider gets to the free throw line a bunch. The implication — statistically, at least, having not seen them play — is that the offense is inside out, featuring a fair amount of attacking the basket and then kicking out to the open man.

To that end, having watched MSU’s point guard destroy us, watch out tonight for Stevie Jordan, one of the most efficient players in the country. He doesn’t take many shots, but he’s deadly when he does (75 eFG%, seventh nationally), and he assists on 32 percent of Rider’s makes (76th). If he’s able to get into the lane with regularity, it’ll probably spell a long night for WSU.

The other potential problem point for WSU will feature rebounding. The Broncs aren’t great at making shots inside the arc, but they’re an excellent offensive rebounding team, featuring a series of long and active bigs. Rider will trot out four guys between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 who each rebound more than 11 percent of their team’s misses when they’re on the floor; for comparison, WSU has zero players like that. It’s probably going to be a struggle to keep Rider off the glass.

As has been the case with Kent as coach, the Cougs are probably going to have to match their opponent basket-for-basket to win. The Broncs are an OK defensive team, but that largely relies on one thing: Forcing turnovers. WSU has been pretty good at taking care of the ball for most of the season, and it will be paramount tonight.

It will be interesting to see how WSU approaches shooting threes tonight. You know the Cougs want to shoot them (their 3PA/FGA is 34th most nationally), and Rider invites a ton of them (11th most). However, here’s a little statistical nugget: Rider also will foul a bunch against teams that can get into the lane, and the more a team gets to the free throw line on Rider’s defense, the less effective Rider’s offense is.

Attacking the rim is not the Cougars’ strength — their free throw rate (FTA/FGA) is 292nd nationally — but this might be a game where WSU actually purposes to get to the basket rather than settling for jumpers.

If nothing else, the game should be entertaining: Each of these teams are in the top 40 in terms of shortest average possession length on offense. Kenpom.com predicts 78 possessions, which might actually be low — WSU has exceeded 80 possessions twice this year already. This is likely to be an up-and-down affair with lots of transition opportunities and three-point attempts.

Let’s just hope the Cougs can make enough of them to avoid another black eye for the program.

(Unless you’re into maximum embarrassment for Ernie. In which case ...)