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What to Watch For: Previewing WSU for the Diamond Head Classic

The Cougs have their first in-season tournament since COVID hit and they have a chance to make a statement!

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Coast to Coast Challenge-Washington State at Baylor Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State University starts the Diamond Head classic with a game against the George Washington Colonials tonight, 12/22, at 6:00 PM PST and can be watched on ESPN 2.

I previewed the Colonials, as well as the rest of the field earlier today, but the gist is that George Washington is a solid offense with veteran guards and an intriguing new coach, but their defense is a borderline disaster and they are struggling to find consistent talent in the frontcourt. They have also struggled with defenses that force their guards to give up the ball in the pick-and-roll, something WSU does fairly well.

The Cougs have mostly taken it to teams like GWU, beating similarly ranked Kenpom teams like Texas State, Eastern Washington, Detroit Mercy, and Northern Kentucky with ease. The only team of the Colonials’ caliber that WSU struggled with was Prairie View A&M, which was a bad loss, but a weird one and likely not representative of WSU’s overall caliber.

After GWU, the tournament gets much more difficult. The second round would be one against Hawaii or Pepperdine, both of whom could put it together and upset the Cougs. Then, WSU could catch any of SMU, Utah State, or Seattle in the championship. Whoever WSU ends up playing, it’s a chance for a quality win.

Despite a 4-6 start, WSU could still push for a tournament bid in March. Only one of their losses would be considered bad, and they are still a top 70 team in Kenpom- 63rd to be precise. The Diamond Head classic offers a chance for WSU to get a couple big wins, rise in the rankings, and make a case for themselves as a legit team to watch come conference play. In-season tournament wins also tend to have an outsized effect when it comes to making the tournament. Simply saying that you have a trophy from a big tournament could sway the voters when you’re on the bubble.

Keys to the Game

1) Hitting shots

WSU currently ranks 62nd in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Despite what some might say, this is a pretty damn solid offense. While some might deride it, the three-point centric offense has been successful. They currently rank 37th in the country in three-point attempt rate and they are shooting 38.4% from deep. That number will only go up as Andrej Jakimovski gets integrated back in, as his 40% jumper will replace a lot of the minutes of sub-average shooters like DJ Rodman and Dylan Darling. The jump shooting has made this offense efficient, and continuing to be aggressive in creating these shots is key for WSU’s offense.

2) Winning the possession game

WSU’s secret strength is that they are an excellent rebounding team. They rank 42nd in the nation in defensive rebound rate and 41st in offensive rebound rate. Rebounding was somewhat of a worry coming into the year, but the Cougs have a couple great individual rebounders as well as a great team concept for rebounding.

However, WSU’s biggest weakness on both ends has been turnovers. On offense, they rank a putrid 310th in turnover rate. Some of this is that they have played two straight games against excellent turnover facing defense, but a lot of also has to do with the fact that this team lacks a real point guard. Kymamy Houinsou and Justin Powell have both flashed there, but neither actually fill that role comfortably. Jakimovski’s return should help this, but it might just be something this roster contends with all season. The loss of Myles Rice is killer for the point guard role on this team.

Defensively, the Cougs rank 260th in turnover rate. Kyle Smith’s teams have seemed to alternate in terms of forcing turnovers, excelling at it in 2020 and 2022 while being below average in 2021 and this season. Again, a lot of the turnover limitation this season is roster based, but it is also scheming. They understand that they’re a bit less athletic than most opponents, and thus they aren’t trying to fly around and get in passing lanes. They are more comfortable running in a straight line to get dudes off the three-point line and into a plugged-up paint.

Winning the possession game is a major factor for WSU in this game, and for their entire season going forward. Cutting down on the turnovers is going to be a challenge, but it should boost their chances at winning, and continuing to win on the glass should keep them solid on both ends.

3) Overall defense

WSU is a pretty good defense, but they have had moments where they border on elite, and being more consistently at the top end is vital for them making an eventual tournament run. Their main strengths on defense are their ability to slow teams down, being 203rd in opponent possession length, and at guarding the three, 31st in opponent three-point attempt rate and 66th in opponent three-point percentage. These positives, as well as their excellent rebounding, have led them to rank 62nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. However, the different between the low-60s and the mid-20s (where the Cougs were the past couple years) is huge.

WSU’s main difference between this season and the past two has been their paint defense. They were within the top 80 teams in opponent two-point field goal percentage the past two seasons, but they currently rank slightly below average at 192nd. Obviously, losing Efe Abogidi has been a huge piece of this change, but not replacing him with any other rim-protector has been tough to overcome. The Cougs will be hard-pressed to make changes here, short of Adrame Diongue taking a massive in-season leap. However, WSU will need to try and find some sort of way to improve on defense, because getting to a top 50 rank would be huge for them getting an at-large bid.

Players to Watch

The ginger-bread snipers -Justin Powell and Jabe Mullins- have been the two primary contributors to WSU’s elite shooting. They are both lights out from deep, and they have gotten more and more confident taking those shots. They are valuable no matter what, especially because they space the floor even when they’re missing shots, but they’ve also both flashed some self-creation chops. Being able to hit pull-ups and create space for jumpers gives WSU’s offense more options.

Mullins, specifically, was my pick for Diamond Head Classic Tournament MVP. His shooting has been stellar when healthy and just about every team in the tournament is going to struggle to matchup with him.

Kymany Houinsou is one of those dudes I can only profess my love for so many times before you all get tired of it. For my money, he is the most exciting freshman WSU has had since Klay Thompson, and his rapid growth in both role and effectiveness has been a blast to watch. He’s been a great rebounder, a good defender on and off the ball, a solid playmaker, and his finishing combines well with his handle to make him a deadly driver and cutter. His improvements have been a blast to watch and I expect him to continue improving over the course of the season.

Mouhamed Gueye has struggled in the last two games, albeit against defensive schemes that are meant to take away his go-to offense. Gueye is perhaps the greatest victim of WSU not having a true pick-and-roll playmaker, but he has still had moments where he looks like a star. He was excellent in the early season Pac-12 games and the Diamond Head Classic is a great chance for him to get going again.

Questions of the Tournament?

Will the Cougs spank the powdered wig off of George Washington and win by 15 or more?

Will one of the WSU players explode onto NBA Draft radars?

Will WSU shoot over 38% from deep over the course of the tournament?

Will anyone score more than 70 points in a game against WSU?

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