The Washington State Cougars start conference play after a disappointing end to non-conference play. The Cougs looked great against good teams like UNLV and Baylor, but they were a Jabe Mullins three-pointer from going 0-3 in Hawaii. They’ve had a week to prepare for a home matchup against 11th ranked UCLA- 4th ranked in Kenpom. This Coug team is still talented and conference play is a chance for them to right the ship.
The game tips off at 8 PM PST from Beasley Coliseum and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.
UCLA is a deadly offense, ranking 6th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. They are ruthlessly efficient and they almost always win the possession game. They rank 6th in turnover rate and 74th in offensive rebound rate, which makes it tough for opposing teams to keep up in the possession game. They’re also 34th in effective field goal percentage, excelling both from two and from three. They don’t shoot many threes, ranking 356th in three-point attempt rate, but they are ruthless getting into the lane and finishing around the rim.
UCLA’s primary offense is built around the pick-and-roll. They have three or four guys they trust be the ball-handler, and they will vary up who rolls as well. They tend to prefer middle ball-screens and their spacing is solid in these sets.
Their go-to variation of a pick-and-roll is a Spain set. This is where the someone sets a screen for the roll-man as he rolls and the second screener then pops to the three-point line. This is an increasingly commons set and it tends to create mismatches by forcing switches.
They also like to force switches by setting guard-guard blur screens. These are meant to subtlety shift a defense and create an advantaged switch for their best isolation scorers.
UCLA also runs a lot of isolations, both on the perimeter and in the post. They will use plays to set up these isolations, but the end goal is still to create them. This is a Horns - Iverson set that clears out a side for a post-scorer in the high-post.
They also utilize a lot of off-ball screens to try and get the best isolation match-ups and shift the defense. Here, the screening gets a good matchup for their post-scorer, but also creates a miscommunication that leads to an easy cut and dunk.
Finally, UCLA likes to push in transition when possible. They are not constantly running the floor, but they rank a solid 127th in average possession length and they are great at getting out and running off of turnovers.
The Bruins’ defense is about equally as good their offense, ranking 10th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their greatest strength is their ability to create turnovers, as they rank 10th nationally in opponent turnover rate. They are also great at avoiding fouls, ranking 41st in opponent free throw rate. They are only about average at protecting the rim- 155th in opponent two-point percentage- and their three-point numbers are a bit interesting. They allow a lot of shots from deep- 280th in opponent three-point rate- but opponents are only shooting 30.7% from deep. A disparity like this tends to imply a lot of luck, but it has worked well enough for them thus far.
UCLA guards ball-screens with a high-catch. This is where the big defender sits about at the level of the screen, not aggressively getting out on the floor to hard-hedge but still discouraging drives.
This defense tends to allow a lot passes to the big in the short-roll. UCLA will aggressively help to take hard rolls to the rim away and often force bigs to turn the ball over.
This style of defense allows for a rim pressure to be had if the guard rejects the screen, because there is no big there to help. They are not as aggressive as you’d expect, forcing drivers to use screens that can be exploited.
UCLA is always looking to plug the lane to force tough shots and turnovers. This team is excellent at taking bad passes away and getting out on the break to score.
Finally, in another effort to create turnovers, UCLA will press. The press is pretty aggressive, trying to jump a lot of passes but also allowing drives to the rim.
Players to Watch:
Jaylen Clark is currently the running favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year and his two-way aptitude is tough to match. He gets in passing lanes, digs well on drivers, and pick the pocket of ball-handlers with ruthless consistency. He also excels as a driver, gets into the lane, and finishes with impressive patience. A true two-way star.
Tyger Campbell has been terrorizing the conference for four seasons now and he will continue to be luminary for this UCLA this season. His craft in the pick-and-roll is unmatched, and he can get into the lane with impressive efficiency.
Jaime Jaquez Jr is a constant threat to score, and has been a fan favorite for a long time. His ability to play in the post is elite, despite his athletic deficiencies, its impeccable. He’s a great playmaker from all over the floor.
Amari Bailey is likely the most heralded NBA prospect on this team despite his up and down freshman season. He is a solid shooter who loves to get himself going in the mid-range. His touch pops and as he gets more comfortable, he could have some huge scoring performances.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
Kymany Houinsou might just be WSU’s most important player. That might sound crazy, but it feels like that’s how it brakes for the Cougs. TJ Bamba can be counted on for a pretty efficient 16 points and good defense, but some missed passes. Mouhamed Gueye can be relied on to switch onto the perimeter solidly and get some post-buckets, but his rim defense has left a massive hole in this defense. Justin Powell can’t be counted on for much of anything game-to-game. So that leaves Houinsou as the bearer of upside for this team. As he grows more empowered by the offense and he gets more comfortable operating as a guard for this team, he could boost them to heights that were not foretold by the non-conference sleight.
Andrej Jakimovski played sparingly in Hawaii after missing the first chunk of the season with turf toe, but I expect him to step into the starting lineup soon enough. His shooting was not quite back during tournament play, but as it comes back, his existence as a spacer and another pick-and-roll operator is vital for this team’s success on offense. Getting Jakimovski going should be a primary focus for the coaching staff.
Jabe Mullins is maybe this team’s best offensive player at this point. For good or for bad, Mullins seems like the guy most likely to go for big games and hit big shots for the Cougs. Obviously, he hit a game winner against George Washington, but beyond that, he has been consistently effective and efficient when he’s been healthy. UCLA gives up a lot of open threes and Mullins should be the primary benefactor.
What to Watch For:
Taking away drives is the most important thing for WSU in this game. UCLA wants to drive a lot; their whole offense is predicated on it. WSU has struggled to protect the rim this season, but they will need to buy into preventing those easy drives to the rim. Gueye is not a lead rim protector, but he has to be on top of it getting out onto the floor and containing the likes of Campbell, Clark, and Jaquez. The Cougs’ help defense will also need to be on point: being aggressive, plugging the lane, and making every shot tough for the Bruins.
Hitting open shots is, once again, the key to WSU’s offense. Much like Utah State, UCLA concedes a lot of good looks from deep. The Cougs are, conceivably, a great shooting team with up to four incredible shooters on the roster when everyone is healthy. However, they are only shooting 35.2% from deep on the year, and it feels like they are either really hot or really cold. If Jakimovski and Mullins can get healthy and play big minutes, that will help a lot, but hitting the good looks created by the offense will need to be a team effort.
Question of the Game:
Will WSU magically look like a good team again after a disappointing Hawaii trip?