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WSU executes brilliantly on both ends to dispatch UW

Some initial thoughts on game one against the Huskies.

PULLMAN, WA - FEBRUARY 23: Washington State Cougars Men’s Basketball versus the University of Washington Huskies at Beasley Coliseum - Washington State center Dishon Jackson (21) Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Good morning to Cougs — and only Cougs — everywhere.

The Washington State Cougars dispatched the Washington Huskies last night, 78-70, in the first of an odd, Covid-induced two-game series. Nate’s got the recap over here if you missed any of the action, but I’ve got a few brief thoughts of my own about how the Cougs snapped out of their funk and put their five-game losing streak in the rearview mirror.

There were some big, obvious storylines — WSU closing out a close game strong, Mouhamed Gueye and Efe Abogidi combining for 46 points, Abogidi collecting a ridiculous 10 offensive rebounds — but the thing that stood out to me is the way that WSU coach Kyle Smith absolutely destroyed UW coach Mike Hopkins from a strategy perspective.

WSU *actually* took Terrell Brown Jr. out of the game! Brown came into the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring. On our podcast, we wondered if maybe it was a decent strategy to just let Brown get his and limit everyone else — the Huskies had lost four games this season where Brown scored 28 or more points.

The Cougars most definitely did not let Brown do that. Quite the opposite: They didn’t just limit his scoring — he would finish with a season-low 11 points — they worked their tails off to limit even his ability to impact the game.

Brown came into the game tops in the conference in usage, with 34% of UW’s possessions ending with him when he’s on the floor. But in this one, he took just 13 shots, using only 25% of possessions. Perhaps even more remarkably, he came into the game tops in the conference in fouls drawn and second in the conference in free throw rate, and yet he only had two free throw attempts.

Quite literally nobody has taken Brown out of a game in this fashion this season.

Noah Williams deserves the bulk of the credit, drawing the assignment most often when the team was in man-to-man, but Tyrell Roberts took a turn, as well. Both did a great job. And WSU junked it up a little with their mediocre 2-3 zone, which didn’t produce great results overall, but it did keep Brown from beating them.

“I was proud of Noah,” Smith said. “He’s intense and competitive emotionally and he kept it (together). He knows we’ve got to play him again in a few days. ...

“Brown’s a 6th-year senior I think, he’s up there, then he’s just, uh — I mean, if that guy’s not an NBA player, man, what do you have to do? I guess he maybe has to shoot the three but he’s really got a good pace to his game — he’s strong, he’s quick, he’s a really good passer, great decision maker, and Noah did a as good a job as I think you can on him.”

Of course, Noah had a little help at times.

It wasn’t a perfect strategy, as Brown still had 8 assists. But his impact was so marginal that I had a tough time remembering very many of his 13 shots. I’m sure that won’t be the case on Saturday — there’s a 100% chance that he puts up more than 13 shots, one way or another — but for a day, the Cougars owned him.

The overall defensive numbers weren’t great, as WSU gave up 1.08 points per possession — the fifth-best of any of the Cougs’ opponents this season. Frankly, it was too much for what had been the best defense in league play taking on an offense that was scoring under a point per possession against league foes. But the Cougs avoided what Bryce cautioned against in his preview: With the game fairly close down the stretch, Brown didn’t even have the opportunity to try and will his team to a win.

WSU had an answer for every defensive look UW threw at them. The Huskies’ defense has been pretty bad in conference play, but — as you well know — so has the Cougars’ offense. Something had to give, and it turned out to be the Huskies.

UW played primarily in its 2-3 zone all night, extending it out to take away WSU’s 3-point shot — WSU only took 17 3-pointers, only about 23 as many as they normally shoot. The Cougs were ready.

Gueye took up residence in what was sort of a mid-post position about 10 feet from the basket while Abogidi lurked on the baseline on the opposite side of the key. The entry passes to Gueye were simple, and plentiful — and they put UW’s bigs in a bind. Four UW defenders were pushed out to the line and Nate Roberts was left to defend two players. It didn’t go well for the Huskies!

After that dunk by Abogidi, Roberts repeatedly stayed home, daring Gueye to shoot, and Gueye obliged — 23(!) times in all. He’d hit 11 of those shots to pile up 25 points as UW seemed to just be waiting for him to miss some. This was maybe my favorite play by Gueye in the game — the double comes, he patiently waits for it to leave, takes a dribble to create an advantage, then feathers in the jump hook over the smaller defender. Savvy:

Gueye did miss some shots, but not nearly enough times to justify the latitude UW was giving the Cougs’ star freshman. And when he did miss? Abogidi was there to clean up the board with nobody really boxing him out.

“I was surprised I was that wide open,” Gueye said. “I’m not used to that. When I realized I was open all the time, I kept shooting. Every time you see a shot go in, you see your confidence go up. That was definitely the game plan.”

Abogidi said: “They weren’t boxing me out. I was just wide open for rebounds. That’s my job: Get the ball every time it goes up.”

Instead of adjusting their zone, Washington decided to run some man. So, the Cougs ran some simple actions to get guards switched onto bigs — Brown repeatedly found himself defending the likes of Dishon Jackson and Abogidi — and they went to work in the paint:

“They really tried to wipe us out from three and they played a lot of that zone so we took advantage of that,” Smith said. “Efe, you know, he’s been battling his (knee) injury now, but he really perked up tonight, and Mo’s been coming on, and then it’s nice to have Dishon back — he made a couple big baskets late, was really poised on the low post and it changes us. ... I was pretty excited about how all those guys played.”

In all, the Cougs scored 40 points in the paint, an area where they’ve struggled mightily in recent weeks. WSU simply had an answer for everything the Huskies threw at them.

Saturday is going to be fascinating. It’s typically been rare in college for teams to play back-to-back, but these are not normal times, and we actually have a significant amount of data with teams playing back-to-back in the last couple of years, which means we might have a little idea of what to expect in the rematch.

Jordan Sperber (whose excellent Hoop Vision newsletter I gladly pay for) looked at 272 back-to-back series through the end of January last season. You can read the full analysis here, but the major takeaways are that the team that won the first game completed the sweep about 60% of the time; the games tended to be slower and more physical the second time around; and the offenses tended to be just a little more efficient, owing mostly to increased free throw attempts.

Now, it’s worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of these series took place on the same court, without fans, and usually on consecutive days. None of that is the case here. But I think it’s notable that the adage of “it’s hard to beat a team twice” didn’t really play out that way. And while the fouling could be chalked up to tired legs — playing twice without a day off — it also could be attributed to having a little better idea how to create advantages on a defense as coaches adjust their game strategy.

It would be unexpected if the game in Seattle played out at an even slower pace; last night’s game was played at 65 possessions, very much to the Cougars’ liking. I would guess UW — which typically plays around 70 possessions — will try very hard to speed it up.

“It’s going to be tough,” Smith said. “I mean ... we’re tired of each other, man; we’ve been around each other, it seems like we’ve gone at something every day, whether it’s film or seeing each other, and it’s it’s a bit of a grind, trying to get ourselves mentally fresh.

“It’s gonna be a challenge, and going on their home floor, they’ll be geeked up and we just gotta find a way. We’ve been pretty good on the road in our competitiveness outside, I think, UCLA. So it’ll be a big test.”

Spring football!

Washington State announces spring football camp schedule | Washington State University |
PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team will conduct 14 practice sessions in March and April.


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