Our Washington State Cougars had a disappointing start to Pac-12 play, but they have a chance to bounce back with a win against Northern Kentucky. The Cougs have much harder non-conference schedule coming up, with some chances for major wins, but they will need to take care of business against the bad teams too, especially at home.
The game tips off at 6 PM PST from Beasley Coliseum and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.
Northern Kentucky Norse
The Norse are a well below-average offense, even by mid-major standards. They currently rank 223rd in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, with their main issue being their overall poor efficiency. They have a 46.5% effective field goal percentage- 295th nationally- and they are shooting a staggering 44.3% from two- 328th nationally. They have struggled to this number despite playing only one team in their first nine games that can protect the rim. They also turn the ball over a lot and struggle to get fouled, but they do at least hit the boards hard- ranking 68th in offensive rebound rate.
NKU plays a type of dribble-drive offense that has a lot of principles, but not a ton of specific sets. They will move the ball around the perimeter, occasionally mixing in handoffs, ghost screens, or post hits, all in an effort to get a driver going downhill.
The Norse run a solid amount of pick-and-roll, as is typical for a dribble-drive offense. They mix in a lot of weaves to set up, but it often culminates with a simple clear side or middle ball-screen.
The Norse are often running three or four ball-handlers on the floor at a time, and this means they can get into pick-and-roll sets all over the floor. They don’t need the ball to be in one player’s hand in order to set a ball-screen.
Something NKU does a lot throughout their offense is set ghost -or blur- screens. Ghost screens are guard-guard screening actions where the screener never makes real contact. The goal of a lot of these plays is to actually get the defenders to get in each other’s way, opening up driving lanes for their offense.
NKU will trust their players to create an isolation off of these blur screens. They are also a great cutting team, so even if the driver doesn’t get all the way to the rim, they can create a paint touch with a cut and a pass.
Finally, NKU’s one major strength on offense is their rebounding. They tend to send a few guys to the glass, and they are adept at out-hustling teams for second-chance looks. WSU has been a good defensive rebounding team thus far this season, but they will need to be careful against the Norse.
The Norse’s greatest strengths come on the defensive end. They are not an elite defense by any means, but they have some solid positives. They rank 191st in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Some of that poor ranking is a bit fluky, as teams are shooting 41.6% from deep against them. Some of that comes from their tendency to give up some good looks, but it’s still absurd, and that will eventually regress. Their greatest strength is that they force turnovers, ranking 35th in the nation in opponent turnover rate at 23.3%. They play aggressive on that end, and that also helps them with rim protection despite not having an elite defender at the rim- opponents are shooting only 47.6% from two. NKU’s biggest defensive weakness is their defensive rebounding, as they rank 312th nationally in defensive rebound rate. NKU is a solid all-around defense, but they are a poor match for WSU’s size and shooting.
The Norse’s primary defensive set-up is a matchup zone, much like Oregon. They play with zone high and with aggressive principles, always looking to force turnovers. This zone can be picked apart, but they tend to force teams to make lots of passes, which can lead to turnovers.
The zone is much more of a four around one than a traditional two-three. This allows them to get out on shooters quicker, but it also leaves the middle a bit more vulnerable. The defensive responsibilities for covering the high-post are less defined and thus passes can get there and shift the D.
Even when they are not in the zone, they still hold a lot of the same principles. They will switch most screens that involve like sized players, especially off-ball, and they will be aggressive in help. They thrive on havoc and they will attempt to force mistakes at all times, even if it sometimes means an open shot for the opponent.
Virtually everyone on NKU’s roster has a nose for the ball. They will all reach and plug and jump passing lanes in an attempt to get the ball going the other way. The Norse are 48th nationally in steal rate at 12.1% and it shows up on their tape.
The main issue with NKU’s defense is that they give shooters good looks from three. They don’t allow an absurd number of threes per se- 219th in opponent three-point rate- but they just tend to give good shooters good looks because of their aggressiveness. Here, they give a 48.5% shooter a wide-open look despite not even being shifted that much.
Players to Watch:
Marques Warrick is a prolific scorer and NKU’s best player. He is an intriguing slasher with insane touch. He had a 45-point game earlier this season and he has consistently been efficient as a scorer. He is not what most would call the point guard for this team, but he can make plays for others and score for himself. He can go absolutely nuclear and WSU will need to be keyed in on him.
Sam Vinson is a 6’5 wing who operates as the point guard for a lot of NKU’s possessions. He is a sophomore who has started every game of his college career so far. He has struggled a bit with efficiency, but he is a solid defender and passer who does just about everything for the Norse.
Chris Brandon is the Norse’s starting five and he is an elite rebounder. He is averaging 11.7 rebounds per game and he gets on the offensive glass specifically hard. He is also an interesting mover and defender who can make a difference with his hustle.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
TJ Bamba had a bit of a tough start to Pac-12 play. He had some great moments, but his overall efficiency left a bit to be desired. He also made the critical foul at the end of regulation against Utah. He is the leader of this team and he has some huge, efficient games this season, but his struggles in WSU’s two biggest games were frustrating. NKU should be a get right game for Bamba, because they have no one who can match up with him on the perimeter. Bamba could use some confidence and momentum before the UNLV game.
Dylan Darling has started the last two games, playing over 20 minutes in each, but he hasn’t been much of a factor offensively. His defense has had its moments, but he also struggled with Will Richardson during the Oregon game. I expect him to start again against NKU, and it would be nice to see him get some rhythm offensively. Whether that be hitting shots off the catch, creating for others in the pick-and-roll, or pushing the pace a bit more and getting downhill in transition. Darling has a lot of upside and he can definitely contribute to the team this year, but he needs to find a legit role on offense.
Mael Hamon-Crespin has played limited minutes in the early season, but it felt like he broke out against Utah. His offense had moments, hitting a three and fouling out Branden Carlson, but his defense is what impressed the most, posting two steals and a block. He still has some limitations as a vertical athlete, but his hustle was outstanding and he displayed real feel in rotations. This team has been desperate for someone to emerge as the back-up big, and while Diongue has had some impressive moments as well, Crespin looks like he could competently fill that role.
What to Watch For:
Manufacturing buckets has been a major issue for this team so far this season and it will continue to be a major issue for, likely, the whole season. The spacing was compromised in the last two games with Jabe Mullins out, and WSU has sorely missed Andrej Jakimovski’s shooting and playmaking in the early season. The injury luck has been frustrating and near impossible to overcome, but the offense is also missing an engine. WSU’s staff prefers to run a high-volume of pick-and-roll, but no one on this team has proven capable of running a lot of pick-and-roll efficiently. The compromised spacing, along with the lack of elite playmakers, leaves the offense in a major bind and they have struggled to overcome it. Their best offense comes from Mouhamed Gueye post-ups, which would work better as a facet and not the feature.
Playing with pace might be a way to alleviate some of WSU’s offensive issues. The Cougs are currently 301st in average possession length on offense, but many of their best moments come when pushing in transition. Upping the pace does not mean throwing crazy hit ahead passes or running into tough shots on every defensive board, but it would mean trying to catch defenses off-guard more often with early drag screens or quick hitters in the post. Just taking advantages of defenses that aren’t already loaded could be a boost to this struggling offense.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs hold NKU below 55 points?