Your Washington State Cougars had a landmark win on the road against Arizona three weeks ago. It was a glorious moment for fans, and it signaled a lot of hope for this scrappy WSU team. They continued that with a home sweep of Cal and Stanford, but it feels like they are reeling a bit after close road losses to the mountain schools. The Cougs looks to build momentum for the final stretch of the season against a formidable Arizona squad.
The game tips off from Beasley Coliseum at 8 PM PST and can be watched on Fox Sports 1.
Arizona is the 6th ranked team in the country, and their offense is the key factor. They rank 12th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, mostly as a result of their tight transition play. However, despite that 12th overall ranking, they have actually struggled against conference teams. They rank 8th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency in only conference play, mostly because they are 12th in the conference in effective field goal percentage. Their struggles around the rim have been particularly prominent, ranking 8th in two-point percentage despite playing two good post-scorers. Their best offensive skill, aside from their 12th overall ranking in offensive pace, is their ability to get to the line. They rank 1st in the conference in free throw rate and a ton of their points come from the line.
I broke down Arizona’s offensive sets in an earlier preview, so if you want to know more, you can read that here.
WSU had a great game plan for slowing down Arizona’s offense in their last meeting. They did a great job identifying whom they wanted to let shoot and whom they wanted to close out hard against. The Cougs were great at staying tight on Kerr Kriisa, and they will likely need to be tight on Courtney Ramey in this one as well. Everyone else can likely be cushioned against in order to prevent drives.
WSU also did a great job of defending Arizona’s high-low actions. Arizona’s go-to offense is these high-low plays, where one big gets a deep seal and the other big is looking to make the pass. WSU looked to front these actions, forcing the opponent to elongate those passes and allowing WSU’s bigs to either get steals or recover into good position with ease. It did occasionally lead to open shots, but it was a generally effective strategy.
Finally, the most impressive thing WSU did defensively was consistently beating Arizona back down the floor. The Wildcats struggled to generate the easy transition buckets they’re used to, and it allowed WSU to always play defense in the half-court.
The Wildcats are the 42nd ranked team in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. While their overall season numbers point to their offense being their greatest strength, that has shifted in conference play. Arizona is the 4th ranked defense in the Pac-12, mostly thanks to their rim-protection and some referee luck. They are 1st in the conference in opponent free throw rate and 4th in opponent two-point percentage. Teams have also struggled to shoot against the Wildcats (29.1%) but they are not always running teams off the line- 6th in the Pac in opponent three-point attempt rate.
WSU had arguably its most impressive offensive performance against Arizona. Their chest sets were great at generating both open looks from three and great cuts to the rim. Mouhamed Gueye excelled while operating with the ball and it opened up a lot of good looks for the Cougs.
Gueye was also excellent at turning their chest sets into isolation opportunities. Arizona could not contain him one-on-one, and it opened up a lot of good shots near the rim.
The Cougs were great at attacking Arizona’s weak links on defense. They put Azuolas Tubelis and Pelle Larsson in as many actions as possible, which allowed them to get good shots from the perimeter or open up solid isolation matchups for their best scorers.
Finally, WSU just played harder than Arizona. They were aggressive on the boards, they were relentlessly attacking when Zona was tired, and they also seemed to win the 50-50 balls. The Cougs will need to keep that same fire if they want another outlier offensive performance in this one.
Players to Watch
Azuolas Tubelis scored an efficient 29 points in the last meeting between the two teams. He was the main force that kept Arizona in that game, and his foul grifting was at an all-time level. He took 12 free throws against the Cougs and was able to draw fouls all over the floor. He is also an efficient post-scorer, and his size poses an interesting challenge for WSU’s forwards.
Kerr Kriisa struggled against the Cougs in their last meeting, but he still has the ability to play as a superstar for the Wildcats. Kriisa can get very hot from three, taking a high volume of pull-ups and forcing teams to run him off the line. He can also dominate as a playmaker, specifically in transition if teams are not cognizant that they need to get back. WSU will have to be attuned to Kriisa at all times to prevent him from getting going.
Courtney Ramey was completely shut down the last time WSU played Arizona. He scored only two points and went 1-5 from the field. However, he was fresh off of an injury at the time and he has been on a hot streak since that game. He has scored in double figures in each of his last four games and has gone 15-31 from deep. WSU will need to prevent Ramey from getting open shots and they might have to live with him making some insane step-backs.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
TJ Bamba had a great game against Colorado despite clearly still struggling with his injury. The hand seems to be a little touch and go, but WSU needs him to match his defensive output from the first Arizona game. Bamba had Kriisa in prison during the last matchup, forcing him into a litany of tough shots, fighting through every screen Arizona set, and even blocking a pull-up three down the stretch. His offense is important, with him being the only reliable driver on the team, but his defense is vital in this one.
Andrej Jakimovski has been inconsistent since his return from injury. His big games tend to be immediately followed by a low-scoring affair. However, he still brings a lot to the table defensively, but WSU will need him to capitalize on open looks when Arizona gives them to him. The Cougs will also likely ask Jakimovski to be the primary defender on Azuolas Tubelis, which will require plenty of attention in its own right.
Jabe Mullins had a huge stretch against the top 4 teams in the conference, scoring 11, 16, 19, and 13 against USC, UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona respectively. However, he has struggled to recapture that magic since. He has gone only 2-11 from deep since those games and scored in double figures only once. It seems like Mullins has rocketed up the scouting reports of opponents and, as such, he has struggled to get the same volume of good looks from deep. It is also true that shooters tend to go through hot and cold stretches. Either way, WSU needs Mullins to be effective from deep in this one, as the Cougs need to be able to take advantage of Zona’s penitent for giving up threes.
DJ Rodman took a bit of an efficiency slide during the mountain trip. He scored in single figures in both games: 28.6% from the field and 33.3% from deep across the series. Rodman’s improvements have been a major key to WSU’s success this season and the Cougs desperately need him to continue hitting threes in the mid-to-high 30s percentage-wise.
What to Watch For:
Handling adjustments is going to be key for WSU in this one. Arizona is going to mix things up after their last meeting and the Cougs are going to have to handle that. WSU scored a number of their points by getting open looks when Arizona pressed, but it is unlikely that the Wildcats return to that press after the issues it had containing the Cougs. Expect to see them stick with the hard hedges on WSU’s ball-handlers as well, as it forced a number of turnovers in the late game. WSU will have to handle these and mix in their own counterpunches to keep Arizona off-balance.
Generating good looks in the half-court felt like a nigh impossibility against Utah and Colorado. WSU went 10-39 (25.6%) from three over those two games. Some of those misses were good shooters missing shots they usually make, but some of that was a reflection of the offensive stagnation in general. The Cougs are at their best when the ball is zipping around before the defense can rotate. WSU struggles to get that initial defensive rotation, but they also struggle when teams are locked in to running their shooters off the line. WSU will need to be able to adjust to more aggressive defenses and make quick decisions if they want to generate consistently good shots.
Winning the star battle is the true key to winning this game. The Colorado game had some frustrating offensive moments, but it is impossible to have a good offense when your star player scores 0 points and goes 0-7 from the field. It’s equally as hard when that player scores a lot but looks like a turnstile on defense. WSU needs Mouhamed Gueye to play like a superstar in this one. He played like one in Tucson and it shot him up draft boards for the first time since his preseason dunk in practice. He was the main reason WSU pulled that win off and they need him to be that guy again if they want to walk away with the upset.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs repeat their landmark victory over Arizona at home?