Your Washington State Cougars are in Hawaii, back at an in-season tournament for the first time since COVID hit. The Diamond Head Classic is a chance for WSU to prove themselves and build their resume against solid competition. Even though there are not any other High-Major teams in this tournament, the field is more than solid, so a win for WSU would be huge long-term.
The Tournament kicks off today at 12:00 PM PST on ESPNU and the games will be split amongst the ESPN Networks. We know the Cougs will be playing George Washington today at 6pm PT, with a matchup tomorrow, Friday the 23rd against the winner of Hawaii vs. Pepperdine, and then a potential Christmas Day game.
Let’s take a look at the teams!
George Washington Colonials
George Washington is a solid Mid-Major, as they reside within the Atlantic 10 rather than any of the Power Five conferences, and they have a lot of veteran talent along with a fun new coach. GW has had a couple good wins, but they’ve also had some head-scratching losses. They are likely better than their 213 ranking in Kenpom, but they have a lot of holes and a still developing program. They are scrappy, and they’ve beat a high-major this season, but they’re far from the most formidable team in this tournament.
George Washington’s offense is their strongest side of the ball. They rank 131st in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency mostly due to their scoring efficiency. George Washington takes a lot of threes- 33rd in three-point attempt rate- and that rate spaces the floor, allowing them to rank 7th in two-point percentage. A high amount of their two-point attempts are open, which leads to that high percentage. They are also excellent at converting at the line- 76.9%- and they get there at a solid frequency. They aren’t great at rebounding or avoiding turnovers, but they are solid enough at those things and it all contributes to them being a solid offense in general.
The Colonials’ primary offense comes from pick-and-roll sets. They trust their guards to run the offense and make plays.
GWU does have some creative sets though. Their coaching staff is excellent at building upon their strengths and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses with set plays.
The Colonials are a poor defense overall. They rank 286th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency because they struggle to force tough shots and they don’t create turnovers. Protecting the rim is a major struggle for GWU, as they rank 226th in opponent two-point percentage. They are solid at running shooters off the line, ranking 280th in opponent three-point rate, but it hardly helps them. The Colonials are solid at avoiding fouls, but that’s about all they’re good at on that end.
GWU will do just about everything to slow down the pick-and-roll on defense. They will trap, hard-hedge, and drop all over the course of one game based on matchups.
Players to Watch
Brendan Adams is a super senior who started his career at UConn, but found his way over to GWU last season. The 6’4 guard is a smooth pick-and-roll operator, a solid off-ball shooter, and someone who can get going in isolation.
James Bishop IV is GWU’s lead scorer and primary playmaker. He is excellent in the pick-and-roll, able to score from all three levels, and make remarkable reads as a passer.
Maximus Edwards is a 6’5, redshirt freshman wing who started his career at Kansas State. Edwards is the starting small forward for GWU, and he can do a little bit of everything.
The Waves are probably the most interesting team in this tournament. For one, their head coach is former UW head coach, Lorenzo Romar, and his lead assistant is former Coug head coach, Ken Bone. For another, this team has four or five legitimate NBA prospects despite being an aggressively mediocre WCC team. They are currently 6-5, but they don’t have any real eye-catching wins. They are a hard team to get a feel for, but they are fun.
Pepperdine ranks right near the middle of Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency at 152nd. Their biggest strength is their pace, as they rank 24th in average possession length and they are always looking to push in transition. They are also a remarkable shooting team, hitting 38.4% of their jumpers from deep. However, they struggle mightily around the rim and in the mid-range- ranking 234th in two-point percentage. They don’t get on the glass or get to the line much, but they are solid at avoiding turnovers and they get a lot of threes up.
The biggest note of import for Pepperdine’s offense is how fast they play. They’re always hunting transition opportunities and love to take open threes in transition.
Pepperdine is an absurdly talented team considering their competition level, which is why it’s a little odd that they run such a complex offense.
Just like their offense, Pepperdine is an incredibly mediocre defense. They rank 156th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and they struggle in three of the four major factors. They almost always lose the possession game, allowing a lot of offensive rebounds- 235th in defensive rebound rate, and forcing almost no turnovers- 311th in opponent turnover rate. They are also good at taking away threes and forcing tough twos. They don’t have a singular great rim-protector, but they do plug the floor hard and run shooters off the line- ranking 42nd in opponent three-point attempt rate and 43rd in opponent two-point percentage.
Pepperdine will closeout with reckless abandon to run shooters off, but they also try to have two or three defenders in the paint to encourage pull-up twos.
Pepperdine is comfortable rotating on defense if required, so long as they aren’t giving up straight line drives.
Players to Watch
Maxwell Lewis is a potential lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft and the complete package as a wing. The 6’7 sophomore is averaging 18.5 points, 2.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and over a block and a steal per game on an insane 67.6% true shooting.
Houston Mallette is one of the best shooters in the country and he can also get buckets off the dribble. The 6’5 sophomore is shooting 44.4% from deep on high volume and he has some of the most insane touch I’ve ever seen. He can hit 18-foot floaters with ease and that touch translates to insane scoring.
Mike Mitchell Jr is the least touted prospect of this group of four, but perhaps the most important to the teams’ success. I wrote about Mitchell as a transfer target last year and he has exploded as a sophomore. Mitchell runs the show for the Waves, and his overall playmaking and shooting is lethal.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
The Rainbow Warriors are off to a solid start to their season, and they are one of the best teams in the Big West. Hawaii has yet to have a big win, but they’ve beat all the teams they were supposed to, and they’ve only had one head scratching loss. They are the home team in this tournament and that could give them a boost over similar competition.
Hawaii has an almost perfectly average offense, ranking 182nd in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. They are great at rebounding, 62nd in offensive rebound rate, and they rarely turn the ball over- 60th in turnover rate. However, they don’t get to the line at all- 245th in free throw rate. They also struggle to space the floor- 235th in three-point percentage. The Rainbow Warriors are a post-centric team and it shows in their stats.
UH runs a lot of flex actions in their offense. Flex offense are predicated on off-ball screens and player replacement in the paint.
Hawaii will also play a lot of high-low ball: getting the ball into the high-post and trusting their big to make a pass to a more advantageous spot.
Hawaii is one of the best defenses in the Big West and they use their size to their advantage. They rank 118th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which is mostly due to their rim-protection. They rank 54th in opponent two-point percentage, but even more impressively, they rank 22nd in opponent three-point percentage and 11th in opponent three-point rate. They are always trying to run teams off the line and into their size in the paint. They don’t force turnovers and their rebounding is only average, but they excel at forcing drives and protecting the paint.
Hawaii legitimately has three dudes on the floor at all times who can block shots, and who are aggressive at hunting blocks.
The Rainbow Warriors will mix up how they guard pick-and-rolls depending on who is defending it. They like to hard hedge or trap good shooters, and force the roller to slip in and help the defense.
Players to Watch
Noel Coleman is the Rainbow Warriors’ lead guard and go-to scorer. He can hit shots from the outside, get into the lane to score, and run the offense. He doesn’t have a singular elite skill, but his craft, feel, and touch all make him a good guard for this team.
Bernardo Da Silva has been at Hawaii for four seasons, and he has developed into one of their top post-scorers. His 4.8% block rate leads the team and helps make him one of the best defenders in his conference.
Beon Riley is my personal favorite player on the roster. He is an awesome defender, making plays all over the court and often being put in to guard the best opposing player. He is also an incredible offensive rebounder and glue guy.
Iona is coached by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, so they are unsurprisingly very well coached. The Gaels are one of the best Mid-Major teams on both ends and they are projected to run away with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They are a team that can hang with big, High-Major teams and they have a chance to win this tournament.
The Gaels are 74th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they play in Pitino’s classic up-tempo offense. They rank 18th in average offensive possession length, meaning they are looking to run at any chance they get. Despite playing at this pace, Iona avoids turnovers with the best of them, ranking 10th in turnover percentage. They’re an average efficiency team from two and three, but they do rank low in three-point volume- 323rd. They are also poor at getting to the line- ranking 348th in free throw rate.
Iona runs a lot of pick-and-roll and they like to get into actions early in the shot-clock. Early drags and double-drags before the defense is set allows their playmakers to get into the teeth of a defense quickly and make plays from there.
The Gaels are a pick-and-roll heavy team, but they like to use off-ball actions to set-up those pick-and-rolls in the halfcourt. This is a flare screen that sets up the ball-screen, but they also like to run pindowns and pistol plays into ball-screens to get the defense shifting and set-up specific spacing.
Finally, Iona runs hard, and they will make teams that are slow or lazy in transition defense pay.
Despite being coached by someone famous for their offense, they are even better on the defensive end. They rank 54th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, with their main strengths being their rim-protection and their ability to force turnovers. They rank 30th in opponent turnover rate and 71st in opponent two-point percentage. They zone up a lot, so they force teams to beat them with passing and movement rather than dribble penetration and it tends to work. However, they do foul a lot- 232nd in opponent free throw rate- and they give up a lot of offensive rebounds- 272nd in defensive rebound rate.
Iona doesn’t exclusively run a zone, but it is their primary defensive look. It tends to be a matchup 2-3, but they will occasionally bring the wings out high and make it a 4 around 1 look.
Players to Watch
Walter Clayton Jr is Iona’s best overall player even though he is not their leading scorer. Clayton runs the show for the Gaels and his passing chops combine nicely with his shooting ability to make him a deadly all-around guard.
Berrick JeanLouis is probably the best NBA prospect on this roster and his skillset is fascinating. He is a star defender both on and off the ball, he has shot efficiently from outside, he makes solid reads as a passer, and his athleticism around the rim makes him a great finisher.
Nelly Junior Joseph is Iona’s go-to post-scorer and he has a variety of moves to get it done down low. He is a classic, back to the basket big who puts in work on the glass.
Southern Methodist Mustangs
SMU is off to a 3-7 start to the season and they have struggled a lot against top competition. After losing their star player, Kendric Davis, and three of their other starters, the Mustangs were forced to start fresh this season. The Diamond Head Classic is a chance for them to turn their season around.
The Mustangs are a poor overall offense, ranking 237th in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Their only real strength on offense is that they avoid turnovers, but that’s about it. They are incredibly inefficient, shooting 45% from two and 29.5% from three, leading them to rank 333rd in effective field goal percentage. They rank near the middle of the pack in terms of pace, 113th in the country, but they tend to fall on both extremes of pacing. They run a lot in transition when given the option, but they also wait until the clock nearly runs out before getting shots up.
SMU runs some creative sets, but everything is built around getting their guards going. They like to have their guards driving downhill and scoring for themselves.
SMU’s go-to set up is a floppy set, where they have a guard cross the court low and run off two screens. They can do anything off of these plays, but it tends to be how they set up their offense.
At the very least, SMU’s defense is better than their offense. They rank 130th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and it is mostly because they’re solid at protecting the rim. They hold teams to 46.2% from two. They are awful at forcing turnovers -333rd in the nation- but they make up for that with solid rebounding and avoiding fouls. They keep teams off the line at the 139th best rate in the country, and that helps keep them stay efficient.
Whether in man or zone, the Mustangs’ main goal is to protect the paint and keep teams from getting easy looks at the rim. This shows with their general pick-and-roll coverages as well as what shot-types they tend to concede.
SMU does like to mix in some zone looks, but usually as a change of pace and not as the default.
Players to Watch
Zhuric Phelps is SMU’s leading scorer and he packs a major punch as a driver and finisher from the guard spot. The 6’3 guard struggles with efficiency and he has more turnovers than assists, but he can really fill it up.
Samuell Williamson is a 6’7 wing and former McDonald’s All-American who has never quite found his footing. He is a good defender and post-scorer with passing chops.
Zach Nutall is another great driving scorer on this team. The three-point efficiency isn’t great, but his athleticism and touch make him deadly near the rim.
Seattle is a more than solid team, and they could absolutely find themselves in the tournament come March. Their only two losses this season have come at the hands of Pac-12 teams, and they beat a great Portland team early in the year.
The best way to describe this team’s offense is passable. They rank 171st in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they live and die by the three. They rank 11th in three-point rate and over 40% of their points come from outside. They are not the most efficient shooting team -33.9%- but they’re comfortable letting ‘em fly. The Redhawks’ greatest offensive strength is their rebounding, as they rank 42nd in the nation in offensive rebound rate.
Seattle’s go-to offense is a high drag screen. They love to get into pull-ups with their guards or quickly swing the ball and get a post-up out of this action.
Seattle also runs a lot of plays in the flow of their offense that are meant to create 3s- little flares and pindowns as the ball reverses get open looks for their guards.
The Redhawks are a solid defense despite their apparent lack of size or athleticism. They rank 136th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, due to how they guard the three-point line. They closeout hard and force players off the line and into tough shots- ranking 60th in opponent three-point percentage and 55th in opponent three-point rate. They’re also solid at protecting the rim despite not having a go-to rim-protector- ranking 129th in opponent two-point percentage. They don’t force turnovers and they do foul a lot, but their positives outweigh their negatives.
Seattle is an aggressive defense. They tend to try to take away the next pass and force offenses to work a lot to get a good shot.
Players to Watch
Cameron Tyson is a Bothell, Washington native, whose circuitous college career has lead him to be an astounding shooter and scorer for the Redhawks. The 6’3 guard is averaging 19.8 PPG while shooting 38.8% from deep on over ten attempts a game.
Riley Grigsby is a 6’6 super senior who does a little bit of everything for Seattle. He has struggled with efficiency from deep, but he’s comfortable taking high-volume shots, defending, and making plays.
Brandton Chatfield is Seattle’s starting center, and he’s a former Coug. The 6’10 big-man is a solid defensive anchor and an efficient scorer.
Utah State Aggies
Utah State is one of a few Mountain West teams that are off to an excellent start this season. Up until Monday they were undefeated on the year, and they are still the statistical favorites to win their conference. They are the highest rated Kenpom team in this tournament and their two-way ability makes them the favorite to win the whole thing.
Utah State is the best offense in this tournament by a solid margin. They rank 33rd in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they are unstoppable at almost everything. Their biggest strengths are their ball-movement and spacing- ranking 8th in assist rate, 86th in three-point attempt rate, and 1st in three-point percentage at a whopping 42.7%. They also rarely turn it over -36th in the nation in turnover rate- and they get fouled a lot- 43rd in free throw rate. Their only weakness is offensive rebounding, but they make up for it with everything else.
Utah State’s offense is built around the drive and kick. Whether it be out of pick-and-roll, attacking a closeout, or in isolation, the Aggies are trying to attack downhill and kickout to an open shooter.
Utah State runs a lot of Horns sets. They like to set a flare off the entry and play from there.
Finally, the Aggies will run hard and they are great at creating easy layups or open threes in transition.
The Aggies are an above average defense, and their discipline stands out on tape. They are 75th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, owing mostly to their amazing rebounding and paint protection. They allow a high percentage from three -39.9% or 353rd in the nation- but they make up for it by ranking 12th in opponent two-point percentage. Utah State packs the paint hard and forces teams to beat them from deep. They don’t force turnovers and they can foul a bit much, but any defense holding two-point shooters to that low of a rate and ranking 4th in defensive rebounding percentage is gonna be hard to beat.
Utah State tends to drop their bigs, which is unsurprising given their desire to take away the rim. Their guards will often fight over screens to prevent easy walk-in threes, but their help will sit in the paint and force kickouts.
The Aggies are aggressive in their help principles and they will do whatever they can to take away easy drives.
Players to Watch
Steven Ashworth is one of the most underdiscussed stars in the country. He is averaging 18.2 points on an unfathomable 77.8% true shooting while also being an excellent passer and a walking fastbreak.
Taylor Funk is another elite shooter on this roster and his 6’8 frame makes him a potential NBA prospect down the line. The super senior is shooting 43.1% from deep on over 7 attempts a game.
Zee Hamoda is probably the best long-term NBA prospect on this team. The 6’7 wing is an efficient scorer, a great defender, and a budding playmaker.
Iona over SMU
SMU is solidly talented, but Iona is simply the better team. Incredibly well coached with cohesive roster construction. It could be close, but Iona is the best bet.
Utah State over Seattle U
Seattle U has talent, but Utah State is simply built to dispatch teams like the Redhawks. Utah State should take this one fairly comfortably.
Washington State over George Washington
George Washington has some talent, but Washington State matches up well and their defense should be hard to overcome.
Pepperdine over Hawaii
This is the closest first-round matchup, and a lot of the numbers will point to Hawaii, but Pepperdine is so talented. I’ll take the pace and space team over the steady flex one.
Utah State over Iona
The Aggies should get pushed by the Gaels, but Utah State is still more talented and their offense will be tough to slow down.
Washington State over Pepperdine
Pepperdine has the talent to upset WSU, but Pepperdine has struggled with good defenses and WSU is elite on that end.
Washington State over Utah State
This is the game everyone wants to see at the end of this tournament. Utah State is a great two-way team, but WSU is an incredible matchup for them. WSU has the slight athletic advantage and their defense could potentially be good enough to slow the Aggies down and come away with the win.
Tournament MVP: Jabe Mullins
Mullins has had three straight healthy games as WSU’s best offensive player and he should be able to keep that up in the Diamond Head Classic.