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NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona

What to Watch For: Scouting WSU vs Cal

WSU looks to build their Pac-12 resume with a win over Cal at home

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougs have a lot of momentum coming off of the biggest road win in program history. They return to Beasley to face a Cal team that only won a single non-conference game, but that has recorded two conference wins in their last two games. The Bears will look to upset the Cougs on the road and continue their surprise rise in the Pac-12.

The game tips off from Beasley Coliseum at 8 PM PST and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network ESPNU.

Cal Bears

Offense:

Cal is, to put it bluntly, a poor offensive team. They rank 224th in Kempom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they are awful in just about every major aspect on that end. They are reckless with the ball- ranking 329th in turnover rate- and they are the fifth worst team in the country in non-steal turnover rate. They are not a good shooting team- ranking 308th in three-point attempt rate and 279th in three-point percentage- though they did explode for 16 threes against Stanford. The only thing Cal is solid at offensively is getting to the line- ranking 77th in free throw rate. A lot of this is based on the play of Devin Askew, though, who has been out for the past few games.

Cal tends to run a lot of middle ball-screens. They set them up with a lot of cross-screening in the middle, especially when they are playing two bigs together, but the result is usually a simple screen set in the middle of the floor.

Cal runs a lot of their actions out of horns sets. This is where two bigs are at the elbows and the ball-handler has a number of options from there. This is a play commonly referred to as horns up, where the ultimate goal is a pindown set for the guard to generate a three.

Cal doesn’t run a lot of horns set where one of the big catches at the elbow. Instead, they like to start the horns set with a big-big cross screen. They will usually pop one big and have the other either set a screen or dive to the post.

Cal also runs a lot of dribble handoffs. Lars Thiemann doesn’t have much gravity as a scorer, but they like to use him as a pressure release valve and then get into other actions from there.

Cal will also mix in some more creative ball-screens. Their favorite is a north screen, where a big from the block pops to the three-point line as the screener rolls to the rim.

Finally, Cal is a patient team and they will run a lot of clock before getting into any real action. They don’t tend to force the issue and they rarely take shots early in offense. They rank 358th in the country in overall adjusted tempo and 352nd in average offensive possession length.

Defense:

Much like their offense, Cal’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. Their greatest strength on defense is more luck based than anything, as opponents are shooting only 30.2% from deep against them. However, they rank 162nd in opponent three-point attempt rate, so it is not like they are running players off the line constantly. They also force almost no turnovers- 302nd in opponent turnover rate- and they struggle on the glass- 212th in defensive rebound rate. WSU should be able to win the possession game in this one.

Cal’s go-to defense is to drop Thiemann deep and keep him in the paint. This puts a lot of pressure on Cal’s guards to get through screens and it tends to lead to a lot of open looks from mid-range.

Dropping Thiemann so aggressively forces their guards to play aggressive around screens and it leads to a lot of unnecessary fouls. Cal is not great in recovery defense, so bigs can behind the defense in pick-and-roll and guards have an easy time finding them if someone steps up to takeaway the mid-range jumper.

Cal struggles to defend good post-scorers consistently because Thiemann is so slow-footed. Athletic bigs can blow right by him if he is out to guard a jump shot, which leads to a lot of good looks for opposing offenses.

Finally, Cal will occasionally mix in a zone. Because they like to keep Thiemann in the paint, zoning up makes a lot of sense. It is not a bad zone, but it can be shot over and the middle is weak because Thiemann struggles to get up to the free throw line to defend.

Players to Watch

Grant Newell is one of a few intriguing wing/forwards on Cal’s roster. The 6’8 freshman is averaging 7.4 points per game and he brings a lot of length and athleticism. His upside comes from his skill flashes, though. He has great touch near the rim and is comfortable taking shots from outside. As he develops, he could be an All-Pac-12 caliber guy.

Sam Alajiki is my personal favorite Golden Bear. The 6’7 Irishman is a phenomenal vertical athlete, getting up for highlight blocks and impressive slams with ease. He has also added a stretch element to his game, with his jumper cresting the reliable mark at 34% from deep. He can get to the rim off the bounce occasionally and he just brings a lot of energy to the floor when he plays.

Kuany Kuany has always felt like a high-upside guy for the Bears. The 6’9 senior flashes ball-handling upside, an intriguing jumper, and fascinating movement skills for someone his size. He has never seemed to quite reach that upside despite the intriguing tools, but he has started to turn a corner during the last three conference games. He exploded for an efficient 18 against Stanford for a huge rivalry win and he will look to carry that momentum to the Palouse.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch

Mouhamed Gueye could have the game of his career against the Golden Bears. Lars Thiemann is a less than ideal defender to guard Gueye thanks to how slow-footed he is and how far Cal drops him into the paint. Gueye should have all he can eat in the mid-range and, if Thiemann steps out to guard him, he should have some easy rip-drives to the rim. Gueye has had a good start to conference play and this game should be a showcase game for him.

Jabe Mullins has been on an insane shooting tear and that should continue against Cal. The Golden Bears are not horrible at allowing open threes, but they do give up a solid amount and WSU’s offense has proven effective at generating those looks. Mullins is up to 51.4% from deep on 5.7 attempts a game. Over conference play, Mullins is shooting 20-35 on threes, which is frankly insane. There is no end in sight for his hot stretch.

DJ Rodman, miraculously halfway through his senior season, has taken a leap into being one of the Cougs’ most vital players. He has always brought the hustle and intensity to the table, but he has started to be an efficient scorer. It feels like the game has slowed down for him and there is nothing he is doing that seems particularly unsustainable. His jump to being a valued starter has been huge for WSU so far.

What to Watch For:

Continuing to improve the chest sets is a big key for WSU. It has become clear that the staff has decided that, sans a point guard, the go-to base offense is the chest look. These looks put the ball in Gueye’s hands and tend to shift a defense with the cutting and away-screening. These sets have helped WSU to being an above-average offense in the Pac-12, but it is important to not rest on those laurels. Continuing to improve the crispness of the cuts, the quickness of the decision-making, and adding little wrinkles to fool defenses, is vital to continuing to be a good offense.

Running Cal off the line might be key in this one. While their statistical profile doesn’t point to them being a good shooting team, they can’t be allowed to get going from outside. Both their conference wins were accomplished by players like Clayton and Kuany getting hot from deep and having outlier shooting nights. The Cougs will need to prevent Cal from getting hot if they want to avoid an upset.

Question of the Game:

Will WSU hit more threes than Cal?

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