The Washington State Cougars pulled off the biggest win in program history on Saturday January 7th, taking down the 5th ranked Arizona Wildcats on their turf. This win is the Cougs’ first win against an AP top 5 school since George Raveling coached the team in 1983. WSU managed this impressive win with some good shooting, but also because Kyle Smith and his staff had an excellent gameplan for the Wildcats.
The coaches received some criticism over the course of the early season, but conference play has been off to a great start. They lost by one to top team UCLA, beat USC, lost to a likely tournament team on the road by single digits, and upset Arizona. The players have played well, but the staff deserves their flowers for adjusting and improving on both ends.
Principles are the general rules that a team is looking to follow. It is a part of the scheme that is larger and overarching, while sets are the specific plays that an offense runs. WSU had a few specific principles that they wanted to follow in order to have an effective offense and beat the Wildcats.
The Cougs were very intentional about their spacing in this game. They played four around one at all times, with the goal of forcing Arizona to either help off of good shooters or leave Mouhamed Gueye and advantaged matchup in the lane.
WSU also made a point of attacking Arizona’s weak links. If Azuolas Tubelis or Pelle Larsson were guarding a scorer on the perimeter, WSU would try to attack them in pick-and-roll or isolation.
That included attacking switches whenever possible. Kymany Houinsou had a mostly quiet game, but both he and TJ Bamba excelled when guarded by less athletic players on the perimeter, getting to the rim with ease and making plays from there.
WSU was trying to get to the middle of the floor as much as possible. Arizona helped hard off of the corners, and this opened up a lot of easy shots for good shooters. Getting middle is the easiest way to make plays- and WSU was diligent about that.
WSU was always looking for advantaged shots, whether that meant taking shots in early offense or being incredibly patient and waiting for something to develop. WSU shot 42.9% from deep on the game and the majority of those shots were open.
Some complain that Washington State has an ugly offense, but I think it’s more patient than anything else. They will attack, end the attack, and reattack until they can get something good. They are careful about the shots they take, moving the ball until an open one presents itself.
The Cougs were also selective when attacking the boards. They knew they had to get back and not get beat in transition, but they also understood that they get a lot of offense from attacking the boards. They picked their spots well, crashing when two bigs were under the basket or when an obvious layup chance presented itself, but never getting out of position to do so.
WSU is, quietly, the 4th best offense in the Pac-12 according to Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Smith and staff have made some nice adjustments to the sets they run, usually Smith likes to run a high-volume of pick-and-roll, but they have shifted to utilizing off-ball screens a lot more and it’s been great for taking advantage of the talent on the roster.
WSU’s go-to non-ball screen offense is chest. Chest plays involve Gueye catching the ball somewhere and then the original passer screening away. The general principle is one player pops to the three-point line and one player cuts to the basket, with the variation coming based on the look the defense is giving.
Most chest plays don’t lead to obvious back-cuts or easy three-pointers, though. Instead, they tend to lead to ball-screens and handoffs. WSU is solid at pick-and-roll, and are making improvements with every game.
The Cougs started to turn a lot of these chest sets into isolation plays for Gueye. He was able to beat Arizona’s bigs consistently out of these sets, even when the screening actions create nothing.
WSU also started running these chest sets from the baseline, which worked well because Gueye operates so well from that position.
The team also mixed in the occasional Spain pick-and-roll. This is where a shooter sets a screen for the roll-man and then pops to the three-point line. It doesn’t generate an easy look here, but it tends to shift a defense and lead to good looks or advantaged matchups.
WSU also mixed in some quick chin actions to their weave concepts. Notice how the handoff occurs as the wings exchange, the pass crosses and the passer slice cuts, and then a flair screen is set off of the pass to the wing. This is a quintessential chin, and it was purposely run towards Azuolas Tubelis to get a great look from three.
This is another nice set-play. It is almost set-up like a flex play, but it ends up being a simple cross-screen to get a post-up. After the offensive rebound, WSU quickly gets into a dribble handoff and gets a good look from deep.
Finally, WSU was much more prepared for the press in this game. Now, pressing in college isn’t the same as pressing in high school, and there is rarely a set-play that can really break a press, but WSU did well to get the ball to the middle of the floor and make plays from there. Arizona was super soft past half-court and they let WSU walk into easy threes consistently.
Overall, WSU’s offensive scheme has been somewhat unfairly maligned this year. Now that they have near their full complement of health, the Cougs are running a scheme that makes sense and takes advantage of their strengths. They are going to generate three-pointers, take advantage of Gueye’s athleticism and ball-skills, and pass until they get the look they want. WSU is a truly dangerous offense for the first time since Kyle Smith took over.
Of course, the real hero of WSU’s big upset was their defense. They held Kenpom’s fifth-ranked offense to only 61 points. They slowed them down, they scouted their talent perfectly, and they made every single shot difficult.
WSU was consistent in beating Arizona down the floor and preventing Arizona’s fastbreak from resulting easy buckets. Because Arizona is used to beating other teams down the floor, they would still try to rush and beat the Cougs, but they couldn’t and that resulted in quite a few bad shots.
In the rare times that WSU did get beat, they didn’t give up on those plays. WSU was going to prevent easy layups by any means possible, including getting chased down on blocks where it seemed to be an open layup.
The Cougs also decided they’d rather foul than let the Wildcats score easy layups. This worked out in the end, as Arizona had an awful free throw shooting game.
The scouting that WSU did was also impressive. They cushioned hard off of Arizona shooters with poor shooting percentages, even if those players have reputations as good shooters. Pelle Larsson, Cedric Henderson Jr, and Kylan Boswell, for example, are all considered good shooters, but their numbers didn’t match that.
This allowed the Cougs to be aggressive in help, taking away drives, post-ups, and easy rolls to the rim. Notice how Jabe Mullins is quick to get over, close out the corner, and prevent a drive.
There was one player that WSU didn’t give space; Kerr Kriisa. The Cougs virtually face-guarded him, chased him hard over screens, and forced him to take almost exclusively tough shots.
In this play, the Cougs chase over ball-screens on Kriisa, with Gueye up in a higher catch, but look how far they go under when anyone else is running a pick-and-roll. They virtually beg Henderson Jr to take a pull-up three here, and it leads to a pretty bad shot for the Wildcats.
The Cougs fronted in the post whenever possible. This is where the big defender sits in the lap of the post-up big and forces opponents to throw it over the top. This resulted in a couple steals, but even when the pass got through, Gueye did well to recover and make those shots difficult.
WSU’s front was less predicated on how they guard the post, but how they guard the pick-and-roll. Notice how Adrame Diongue is in a hedge here to prevent easy penetration, which allows the roll-man to get below him. He is forced to front and be active in order to prevent an easy drive or easy entry pass.
Finally, WSU had a pretty sound strategy for slowing down Arizona’s post-scorers. Tubelis still had a good overall game, but they made him work for those buckets and he got consistently bailed out by foul calls. WSU was always trying to force him baseline and send help, which would either lead to a tough shot or a pass to the perimeter.
Stars Shined Bright
As well as the staff did preparing for Arizona, it would be erroneous to not point out the improvements the players have made from the early season as well. WSU’s top 5 guys have all played incredibly well in recent games, with basically everyone having a stellar performance against Arizona.
Mouhamed Gueye has stepped up as this team’s true star. The most improved player in the Pac-12 is operating a lot with the ball both on the perimeter and in the post. Gueye’s shot-diet is the type you’d expect from a slashing wing, not a pick-and-roll big, but he has grown into that role well and he thrives scoring on slower-footed big-men.
Gueye has started hitting some huge, momentum shifting shots when the offense breaks down and that is great for WSU’s offense. They have been searching for their go-to scorer, and they seem to have found one.
Gueye being able to attack from the perimeter and get downhill against slow bigs makes him all the more dynamic in WSU’s chest sets. If a big looks away to focus on the off-ball screens, Gueye can attack and use his athleticism to throw down big dunks.
Gueye also showed off some impressive moments of hustle and grit when needed. This was one of the best defensive and rebounding games of his career. He had six offensive rebounds in this one, almost all of them resulting in a bucket.
Gueye stepping up as WSU’s defensive anchor was also huge in this one. He makes everything work for them on that end, with his impressive hedging, aggressive fronts, and recovery when beat. He stayed in the game without fouling out, but never sacrificed intensity or positioning to avoid fouling.
Jabe Mullins has also proven himself to be a star in recent games, and potentially the best shooter in the country. Mullins is now shooting 51.4% from deep on 74 total shots. That number is absurdly high, especially considering that he has been injured for a solid chunk of those shot attempts.
The degree of difficulty on some of his shots is insane. Not many other players in the country are taking the shots he does, let alone canning over 50% of them. His shot-making is a real weapon and he has proven himself against the top teams in the conference.
DJ Rodman is another starter on a solid uptick as a scorer. Over the last four games, against four of the top teams in the Pac-12, Rodman has scored 19, 16, 16, and 11 on 12-24 shooting from deep. He has hit a lot of shots from deep and he has added an element as a driver, making him a great overall offensive piece.
Of course, Rodman’s game is still mostly based on his defense, rebounding, and overall hustle. That has remained with the uptick in scoring, making him a valuable role-player in the starting lineup.
Finally, WSU’s leader had an impressive game on both ends. While the scoring might not pop, TJ Bamba brought a ton of intensity on defense. He set the tone for the game by locking up Kerr Kriisa, holding him to 10 points on 3-13 shooting.
While it didn’t show early in the game, Bamba took over at the end of the game with his isolation scoring. There have been some tough crunch time moments for this offense, but the staff has stuck with trusting Bamba to be their guy down the stretch and it paid major dividends in this one.
Bamba’s ability to beat less athletic defenders on the perimeter lets him create easy advantages from a standstill. This is key for the offense when the game slows down and teams are more keyed into WSU’s shooters.
Bamba just took over at the end of the game on both ends. He frustrated Arizona and brought a lot of intensity to help close out.
In the end, WSU just did a masterful job beating Arizona. They forced them into bad shots, took away a lot of their go-to offense, and punished their weak links defensively. It wasn’t a perfect win, but the Cougs wouldn’t have it any other way. Arizona left the game frustrated, defeated, and beat at home for the first time since Tommy Lloyd took over.
Arizona’s best players expressed that frustration at the end of the game in the way you’d expect.