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What to Watch For: Previewing WSU @ Colorado

The Cougs look to force a split in the mountains against the Buffaloes

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State had a frustrating loss to start the Mountain trip, but they have a chance to redeem themselves against a tough Colorado squad. The Buffaloes have dropped three straight, including a questionable blunder against UW, but they are a well-coached squad with length and a star point guard.

The game tips off at 3 PM PST and can be watched on ESPNU.

Colorado Buffaloes


Colorado has been a pretty middling offense all year, but they have especially struggled in conference play. They are 11th in the Pac-12 in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, mostly due to their lack of shooting and decision-making. The Buffs rank 12th in the conference in turnover rate, 8th in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage, and 11th in free throw percentage. They are not great at generating good shots and they have a lot of inexperienced ball-handlers. They don’t take many threes, 9th in three-point attempt rate, but they are a good passing team- 4th in assist rate. Their greatest strength is their rebounding, as they rank 2nd in the Pac in offensive rebound rate. Overall, though, this should be a “get right” opponent for WSU’s struggling defense.

Colorado runs a lot of pick-and-roll as their base offensive set. They will set these screens on both wings or in the middle of the floor. They’re looking to get downhill to finish or kickout to shooters.

The Buffaloes have a variety of setup plays that get them into these ball-screen looks. This is a little weave play that shifts the defense and opens up the middle of the floor for a drive.

Here is another pick-and-roll setup. They run a staggered away screen for a shooter who then cuts across the floor, and the second stagger screen immediately turns to set a ball-screen. This is mostly simple stuff, but it works to shift the defense and get them slightly out of position as the ball-screen is set.

Colorado has a great understanding of spacing despite not having many shooters. They will set ball-screens 8 feet above the three-point line if they think a team will guard them out there, which opens up more of the floor for their scorers and playmakers.

Colorado will let a lot of players run pick-and-roll, not just their guards. Here, they use a Horns cross look to get a forward isolated on the wing, and then they set a screen for him.

Colorado’s best offense comes when they’re playing fast. They will run on turnovers, on missed shots, and even on made shots if the defense isn’t set. They love to throw hit ahead passes get into the lane before a rim-protector can get back.

While the Buffaloes are not the most prolific shooting team, they will take transition threes if the look is good enough. Defenses have to be attuned to the likes of Julian Hammond and KJ Simpson in transition, or else they’ll get burned with open threes in early offense.


The Buffaloes are a great defensive team, as has been the trend for Tad Boyle’s tenure in Boulder. Colorado ranks 24th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they are great at just about every aspect on that end. They’re an excellent rim-protecting team, holding opponents to only 46.3% from two. They also take away good shots from deep, ranking 75th in the nation in opponent three-point attempt rate. They also finish possessions well- 55th in defensive rebound rate, and they force a lot of turnovers- 90th in opponent turnover rate. Colorado is a formidable defense and WSU will have their work cut out for them trying to break it down.

Colorado’s two main ball-screen coverages are switching and catching high. Colorado’s high catch is a little odd because their guards are going under the screen, so the big has less of a responsibility with the initial action. They prefer to guard things straight up, but the big will step up and help to prevent a drive and then recover to the roll-man.

The big worry for WSU in this one will be avoiding turnovers. Colorado is solid at forcing turnovers in a variety of ways. They deploy a unit full of athletic, long, and high-feel defenders who are great at getting in passing lanes, plugging up drives, and getting their hands on passes.

Colorado is particularly effective at plugging the lane on drives and forcing turnovers in tight spaces. They collapse quickly, even off of good shooters, and this shrinks the floor on drivers before they can react. WSU’s ball-handlers will have to be cognizant of these digs and they will need to make good decisions quickly in order to avoid turnovers like this.

Players to Watch

KJ Simpson is a star in the making at the point guard spot and his mix of handle, athleticism, and touch is virtually unmatched in the conference. His herky-jerky handle style is incredibly fun to watch, and it’s allowed him to put up 17.4 points and 3.8 assists a game. He can consistently explode for huge scoring nights and is likely the focus of WSU’s game plan.

Tristan Da Silva is likely the best pro-prospect on Colorado’s roster. The 6’9 forward is the younger brother of former Pac-12 player of the year, Oscar Da Silva. Tristan is a good defender and an efficient scorer, who plays a lot of minutes as the small-ball center for Colorado. He can hit shots, score in isolation, and make plays on defense with the best of them.

J’Vonne Hadley is one of the weirdest and most fun glue guys in the Pac-12. The 6’6 forward is a transfer from Indian Hills CC, a powerhouse junior college. He is wing sized, but he plays more as a forward or big than anything. He’s efficient around the rim, but hasn’t shot many threes all season. He’s an excellent defender though, and that’s where he earns his minutes. He boasts a 2.7% steal rate and a 2.2% block rate, which are both impressive numbers for a player his size.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch

Mouhamed Gueye had a solid statistical game against Utah, but a poor defensive performance. One-on-one stats are not always the be all, end all for evaluating defense, but it is notable that Branden Carlson was absurdly dominant. Gueye got caught on a lot of cross-screens and struggled to provide resistance at the rim when Utah drove. Gueye will have to be better as a rim-protector if WSU wants to come away with a win.

Kymany Houinsou struggled a lot against Utah. He has always been a flashes guy, but the flashes tended to pay solid dividends when in his minutes. However, against the Utes, he went 1-6 from the floor, had 0 assists, and only one board. He had a poor offensive rating in his minutes and was virtually unusable in crunch time. Houinsou’s greatest strength right now is his ability to run the point guard in transition, but when WSU is playing almost all of their possessions in the half-court, he has struggled to be positive. Post-ups will likely not be there against Colorado’s superior size, so he will have to find a way to exploit the Buffaloes’ pick-and-roll defense even when dealing with deep unders.

Jabe Mullins had a fine game by his standards against Utah. He had two great assists and a somewhat efficient 11 points, but he only went 1-3 from deep and he struggled to get open looks. It’s clear that teams have started guarding him like the 5-alarm fire that he is, but he and the Cougs will have to adjust to that in order to generate a high volume of good looks for him.

What to Watch For:

Whoever wins the possession game will likely walk away with the win in this game. Colorado excels on the boards, both offensive and defensive. WSU has struggled on the boards in conference play, ranking 10th in defensive rebound rate and 6th in offensive rebound rate. WSU will need to get big on the boards if they want to have a shot in this one. The Cougs will also need to avoid turnovers, as Colorado’s size, feel, and athleticism makes them a real threat when forcing turnovers. Colorado also turns the ball over a lot, which is something WSU has failed to capitalize on so far in conference play. The Cougs rank 9th in the Pac-12 in opponent turnover rate. Wazzu is at a statistical disadvantage, but playing above those statistics and winning the possession game should be a major focus in this one.

Protecting the rim has been a huge struggle for the Cougs all season, but it will need to be better against Colorado. WSU ranks 9th in the conference in opponent two-point percentage, and while Colorado is not an incredible two-point scoring team, ranking 8th in two-point field goal percentage, they do take a majority of their shots near the rim. They struggled with bigger, rim-protecting fives like Braxton Meah and Joshua Morgan, but they have excelled when playing against teams with worse rim protectors. WSU’s usual strategy of running players off the line and forcing them to finish at the rim won’t work against a team like Colorado, who doesn’t want to shoot anyways.

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