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NCAA Basketball: California at Washington State

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What to Watch For: Previewing WSU @ Utah

The Cougs travel to Utah for a huge game between two bubble teams

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars have a huge road game today against the Utah Utes. The last time Utah played WSU, the Cougs were without key players, but they took Utah to overtime. There were some frustrating moments in that game, but there were also a lot of positive takeaways. The intrigue is high as the Cougs start the mountain road trip in Utah.

The game tips off at 6:00 PM PST from Utah and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.

Utah Utes

Offense:

The Utes are on a three-game slide and a major part of that has been their offense in conference play. They rank 124th in the country per Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, but they rank 10th in the Pac-12 in conference games. The biggest issue for Utah is their general lack of shooting, as they only shoot 30.8% from deep and they rank 7th in the conference in attempt rate. They have also struggled mightily with turnovers in conference play, ranking 9th in turnover rate. This comes despite playing a few of the worst turnover-forcing teams in the conference. However, as WSU fans are intimately familiar with, Utah excels at getting to the line. They rank second in free-throw attempt rate and they have multiple players who are excellent at getting beneficial calls from the refs.

Utah’s go-to offensive set is chin. Chin is a set where one big is up at the elbow and everyone else spaces around the big. There are passes around the perimeter and specific through cuts to set up different actions. Chin plays often result in post-ups, dribble handoffs, or wing pick-and-rolls with solid spacing.

While chin is often used as just a general set with multitudes of options to play out of it, there are some specific plays that are set up within chin actions. This is a cross-play, where a shooter sets a cross-screen for a post and then receives a down screen to get a shot.

Utah loves to get into dribble handoffs out of chin plays. Branden Carlson is deadly as a pick-and-roll big because he can pop and hit shots, and Utah has multiple players who can get downhill and make plays out of these actions.

WSU is going to have to be creative in guarding pick-and-roll against Utah. Utah only has two or three true outside threats, but one of them is their primary screener. WSU tends to hard-hedge screens, but the best option is likely to switch and recover on ball-screens.

The Utes will post-up a lot throughout the course of the game, especially because they have so many players who excel. They will post their bigs, they will post their guards, and they will run plays that are specifically meant to create isolations in the post.

Defense:

Utah is a very formidable defense. They rank 26th in the country in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and 3rd in conference play. They don’t force many turnovers, 11th in the Pac in opponent turnover rate, but they excel at forcing teams to take bad shots. They rank 5th in the conference in opponent two-point percentage thanks to their rim-protection, but they are 12th in the country in the same stat. Teams have also struggled to shoot against the Utes, as Pac-12 opponents have hit only 26.7% of their threes. Some of this is luck based, but they tend to play personnel well, running good shooters off the line and letting bad shooters cast away. The Utes have proven to have a solid defense against all calibers of competition, so the Cougs’ offense will have their hands full trying to score on them.

Utah plays all sorts of different coverages in pick-and-roll depending on whom they are defending, and which players are defending. Their go-to coverage is drop, letting their big sink in the pick-and-roll and trying to prevent layups or lobs.

They are an excellent rim-protection team when playing in drop. They help hard and Carlson is excellent near the rim. His shot-blocking instincts are impressive and he makes finishing a nightmare for opponents.

When the Utes are playing against good pull-up shooters, they will catch a little higher to prevent easy looks from these players. This sometimes leaves lobs open over the top, but they are great at helping on these plays and plugging the paint to prevent easy layups.

When Utah is playing their backup big, Keba Keita, or another big is involved in the screening action, they will often hard hedge. This is where they show high to try to force the guard to pick the ball up. The big defender is then supposed to recover to the post and force the offense to reset.

Utah’s primary goal on defense is to prevent layups. This means they will plug the lane on defense and force teams to shoot over them. They tend to try and trap post-scorers baseline and takeaway cuts with their off-ball defense.

Finally, Utah will occasionally throw in a press. I expect to see this a lot against WSU, specifically. They will trap the initial pass and force teams to beat them with over the top passes.

Players to Watch

Branden Carlson is one of the best players in the Pac-12 and his two-way ability at the five spot is matched by few in the country. His 7.8% block rate is representative of his rim-protection prowess and he is the engine of Utah’s defense. Carlson is also averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting 41.4% from deep. He is a skilled pick-and-pop shooter who also excels at scoring in the post.

Gabe Madsen is up there with Jabe Mullins as one of the best shooters in the conference. Madsen is shooting 36.7% from deep on an absurdly difficult shot diet. He excels at shooting off of movement and Utah will run a variety of sets to get him shots from deep. He will shoot over contests and he will make some head-scratching shots look routine.

Rollie Worster is a throwback point guard in just about every sense. He is a pass first player who loves to playmake out of the post. He is not a great shooter, but he has a tendency to hit clutch ones and he is always reliable. He is trusted to set up and run Utah’s offense while also being an excellent defensive player.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch

DJ Rodman now has six straight games scoring in double figures, shooting above 40% from deep in all of them. The jumper feels legit, as he has hit a ton of shots in big moments and he has started to hit some shots off-the-dribble. He has become a must-guard guy on the perimeter and his ability to attack closeouts has also been great. He has been an excellent contributor to this team’s offense with his shooting, quick decision-making, and scoring on drives. He has been WSU’s second most reliable scorer in conference play and he opens up a lot for other players.

Andrej Jakimovski finally had his breakout against Stanford and he looked healthy for the first time this season. He went 5-6 from three and played some impressive defense to boot. His size and shooting are a great combination for a starting wing and teams are going to be forced to defend him on the perimeter now that he has his shot back. Expect efficient scoring, good defense, and consistent rebounding from Jakimovski going forward.

I called my shot with a Jakimovski breakout against Stanford, and I am going to shoot again. Jabe Mullins had a rough week against the northern California schools in Beasley, scoring only 7 points and going 1-6 from deep. However, shooters like Mullins rarely stay cold and he tends to show up when the lights are brightest. I expect an efficient game from deep and at least one “how did he hit that” shot from Mullins in this one.

What to Watch For:

Winning in the post is the main key for WSU in this one. Mouhamed Gueye had an excellent game when Utah came to Pullman and the Cougs will need him to replicate that in order to win on the road. In their last meeting, Gueye put up 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 steals before eventually fouling out. He had some struggles with turnovers, but he thoroughly outplayed Carlson in their last meeting. Carlson fouled out in only 19 minutes and only had 7 points in the contest. WSU needs Gueye to outplay Carlson again if they want to secure this huge road win.

Hitting outside shots is another key for WSU in this one. WSU went 4-30 on threes in their last meeting, albeit without Mullins or Jakimovski. WSU got a major win against Stanford despite their best shooters not hitting shots, but the Cougs are unlikely to be so lucky against Utah. They have to keep the ball-movement up and they are going to need to hit shots at a high-level to compete.

Question of the Game:

Will Mouhamed Gueye outscore Branden Carlson?

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