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What to Watch For: Previewing WSU vs Utah

The Cougs host a hot Utah squad in a pivotal early season matchup

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougs look to end the early period of Pac-12 play with a win against the Utah Utes at home. WSU is coming off of a disappointing loss, whereas the Utes have an absurd amount of momentum after beating the 4th ranked Arizona Wildcats at home.

The game tips off at 1 PM PST from Beasley Coliseum and can be watched on ESPNU.

Utah Utes

Offense:

Utah is a good offense, maybe even a great offense, and they can go nuclear when they are hitting shots. They rank 71st in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, mostly due to their elite passing and solid pace. They rank 68th in assist rate and 109th in average possession length, meaning they trust their passers to make plays within the flow of the offense, and they let their shooters shoot. There isn’t a real offensive weakness for the Utes, as they are above-average in all the four major factors- effective field goal percentage, turnover rate, offensive rebound rate, and free throw rate. They are an efficient shooting team- 36.1% from deep and 49.8% from two- they tend to win the possession game, and they maximize possessions by creating good looks.

Utah does not have one singular pillar they build their offense on, preferring to run multiple different sets to keep the defense guessing. Something the Utes are conscious of is their spacing in play. Utah’s compromised space due to a few bad shooters causes them to compensate by keeping the ball moving and finding better space opportunities.

They do like to get into pick-and-roll sets frequently, trusting their guards and wings to make plays for others without turning it over.

Another example of the Utes making up for their space issue is when they utilize their bigs in the pick-and-roll. Both Branden and Ben Carlson can stretch it out from deep. This opens up the paint more and forces teams to either switch or give up an open shot.

As is the current trend in college basketball, Utah runs a lot of chest sets. Because they have bigs who can hit shots and make plays, they open a lot of space with these sets and allow their best players to make plays.

Utah plays a lot of their offense out of the post. They have a few elite post-scorers who can also make plays for others. Teams often send doubles to their post-players, opening space for wing players to get open shots.

Utah will also sometimes post their guards. Utah doesn’t have many drivers who can get all the way to the rim, but they do have big-bodied guards who can turn and get good looks out of the post. Whether it be scoring for themselves or creating for others, Utah has guards who can busy down low.

Utah also has some fun and creative pet plays. This is a gorgeous flipped downscreen that creates an open side for a drive. They are versatile and creative with their sets on offense, often leading to defensive confusion and open looks.

Utah isn’t an absurdly high-frequency transition team by any means, but they do play fast when the opportunity presents itself. They are a team full of quick decision-makers who will take advantage of a defense that isn’t set. WSU will need to be consistently diligent in transition defense.

Utah doesn’t create a ton of turnovers, but when they do, they will flip the floor quickly and create open shots.

Utah will not run down the clock or make five passes to get into their offense like some teams. If they can, they will enter into the post quickly or set-up an early drag screen in offense.

The Utes are an elite offensive rebounding team. They will send three to the glass consistently, but they also have a few guys who can do it all on their own.

Finally, Utah does have some struggles with spacing and that can help opposing defenses at times. They have a few guys who play major minutes that aren’t threats from outside and that allows defenses to cramp the floor, forcing the Utes to play in a condensed floor.

Defense:

The Utes are an elite defense, ranking 40th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They are excellent at playing the percentages and protecting the rim, which has helped them rank 2nd in effective field goal percentage. They will let bad shooters cast away from deep, run good shooters off the line, and force everyone into their elite defenders at the rim. They don’t force many turnovers, but they don’t foul at all- 39th in the nation in opponent free throw rate. They are excellent at slowing teams down, taking away good looks, and blocking shots at the rim.

Utah trusts their bigs to protect the rim, so they drop them in the pick-and-roll. They are fine if teams beat them in the mid-range, but their bigs keep them from being beat at the rim and their guards will force shooters off the line if necessary.

Utah’s greatest strength on defense is their scouting. They will aggressively go under on players they want to shoot pull-ups, and they will chase shooters over on screens. They rarely make mistakes in this aspect, and this allows them to cover for some athletic deficiencies.

Craig Smith trusts his players to be crisp defensively, and that allows them to plug the floor aggressively. They will even help off of some good shooters because they trust their players to X-out.

The Utes will double in the post consistently, especially if there is a mismatch. Their players are great at making reads on defense and being in the right spot when needed.

Utah will also occasionally throw in a zone. They don’t stick with it for long, but if a team goes on a run or is playing too fast, the Utes will switch it up and give them a different look.

Finally, the Utes play with an incredible amount of energy. They’re not the most athletic team in the world, but they constantly play at 110% which makes them seem more powerful.

Players to Watch:

Branden Carlson is arguably the best player in the Pac-12 right now, and he is the engine around which the Utes are built on both ends. The 7’0 senior is an elite post-scorer who can make plays for others and stretch the floor. He is also an elite rim-protector, posting an impressive 8.7% block rate. Carlson can do it all and he’s turning Utah into a potential contender in the conference.

Gabe Madsen is taking a leap his junior year and he might just be the best shooter in the conference. The 6’6 wing hits some impossible threes; off-movement, off-the-dribble, you name it! He is also a solid perimeter defender, and he will make for an interesting matchup with WSU’s oversized guards.

Lazar Stefanovic has had an up and down sophomore year thus far, but he is still fun to watch, and he can go off for some big games. He is an excellent passer at 6’6, often playing the point for Utah. His shooting has been rough so far this season, but his highlights still pop.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch

Justin Powell seems to be the bellwether for this team’s success. It’s frustrating to watch a player so talented fall into the background as consistently as he does. When he is on, everything seems to click for this team. He makes plays for others, hits tough shots, and simply makes everything sing. However, WSU’s losses have all come on games where Powell disappears. A big issue is how quick he is to pick-up his dribble, not trusting himself to play in tight spaces or create for himself in the mid-range. He has flashed some moments getting to floaters or keeping defenders on his back, but the consistency simply isn’t there.

Mouhamed Gueye had a great first half against Oregon, but he struggled in the second half thanks to some foul issues. His defense has started to solidify as what we hoped it would be. He still has some deficiencies as a rim-protector, but his switch defense has been elite and there have been some moments with him in rotation. The offense popped against Oregon, as he scored a ton in the post, created for himself from the perimeter, and continued to make solid reads as a passer. There is so much to like with Gueye’s game and he should continue stepping into his role as this team’s star.

Two of the players to watch always tend to be the stars. Some combination of Powell, Gueye, TJ Bamba, or Jabe Mullins tend to be the popular names, but I usually pick a wildcard for the third one. Not this time though, WSU needs a win and that will always fall on the stars, meaning Bamba is the third player to watch this week. He has been the Cougs’ most consistent scorer thus far and there will be some players he can attack in isolation. Bamba will need to have a big game for WSU to get a big home win in this one.

What to Watch For:

WSU’s offensive scheme is not bad, but it sometimes lacks specific set pieces that could help manufacture some easier buckets. These plays would be nice to help balance out the issues with inconsistent star players. Whether it be more plays to get shooters open on the wing, or create more lob opportunities. Just the occasional play to help beat the stagnation would be great to see, and it might be necessary against an elite defense like Utah.

Foul trouble was an issue for the Cougs in Eugene, and it’s a pervasive issue for WSU going forward considering their lack of depth. Mael Hamon-Crespin struggled mightily in his limited minutes and Adrame Diongue still looks a bit outmatched. Gueye is the only player who can comfortably matchup with the likes of Carlson down-low, but he will need to handle him without fouling. Maybe the solution will be more aggressive doubling in the post or zoning up more often. Whatever it is, WSU will need to do whatever they can to keep Gueye from early foul trouble.

Question of the Game:

Will Mouhamed Gueye outplay Branden Carlson?

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