Our Washington State Cougars conclude the hardest road trip in the Pac-12 against No. 5 Arizona Wildcats. Arizona lost the star trio of Bennedict Mathurin, Dalen Terry, and Christian Koloko, but they retained two other key starters and replaced those three with impact transfers and returning depth. The Cougs are in for a tough one in Tucson.
The game tips off at 2 PM PST and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.
Arizona is the number one offense in the country according to Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency metric. Name an offensive category- they are dynamic at it. Their passing is the stat that pops most, as they rank 7th in assist rate and they keep their turnovers at an average rate- 177th. They also play at a stupid high-pace, ranking 5th in the country in average possession length. They’re always pushing in transition, but they also consistently get into their sets quickly in the half-court. They are an uber-efficient scoring team, ranking 5th in two-point shooting and 83rd in three-point shooting. They also get on the boards, 67th in offensive rebound rate, and get to the line- 20th in free throw attempt rate. They are, simply, one of the best offenses in the sport.
The Wildcats go-to offense is built around setting a ball-screen and then getting the ball into the post. Usually, their big responsible for setting the screen pops, so they’re out of the way for the big responsible for posting.
The popping big will often get a pass, which initiates a quick high-low action for the offense. They love to get these straight on passes to the post, and even if the other big isn’t a shooting threat, the double tends to come too late.
These deep seals don’t always just lead to post-ups, but it often clears off the rim for drivers to get easy penetration.
Arizona having two post threats might pose a problem for WSU. Mouhamed Gueye could likely handle the center to some extent, but throwing DJ Rodman and Andrej Jakimovski at the 6’11 power forward will mean a noticeable disadvantage for the Cougs.
Arizona will occasionally run some specific set pieces, especially at the beginning of the game. Below is an example of their horns cross play, which utilizes a guard-big cross-screen to try and get a post mismatch.
The Wildcats have a few plays to get shooters open with off-ball screens. This is a low-horns cross screen that turns into stagger screens, leading to a wide-open shot for Kerr Kriisa.
They also like to mix in some specialized pick-and-rolls. This is a Spain action, where a shooter sets a screen for the rolling big and then pops to three.
Arizona is going to push the pace, and they’re always hunting shots in transition. Whether it be early post-ups, breakaway dunks, or threes, the Wildcats love to get shots before a defense can set-up.
Finally, Arizona’s passing is strong, and they will pick apart defenses that make even the tiniest mistakes. Everyone on the roster is capable of making good, effective decisions that lead to open teammates and they exploit any and every slow rotation.
Arizona is, unsurprisingly, a more than competent defense as well. They rank 54th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they are a well-coached group on that end. Discipline is often an overused term in basketball, but the Wildcats are undeniably disciplined defense. They don’t foul- 40th in opponent free throw rate, they rebound- 54th in defensive rebound rate, and they pack the paint- 62nd in opponent two-point rate. The Wildcats do give up a solid amount of 3s- 218th in opponent three-point attempt rate, but that is about all they do poorly. They don’t turn teams over much, but they don’t need to because they execute in just about every other way.
The Wildcats main mission on defense is preventing easy shots at the rim and it shows with how their bigs play. They will leave an opposing big-man wide open with 10 feet of space, even when that is looking for handoffs to pull-up shooting guards. This drop coverage strategy is usually at play with their centers, but even their fours will drop if the screener is not a shooting threat.
Tommy Lloyd likes to play the numbers game, forcing teams to take tough mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll instead of letting them get easy layups or open threes, and it tends to work.
Arizona’s greatest defensive strength is their scouting. They have the general principle of dropping the big and packing the paint, but they will chase shooters around screens and force them off the line while helping off of weak shooters. They know their matchups well and they execute to perfection.
Finally, while Arizona is not a particularly notable turnover forcing team, they are great at speeding teams up and forcing a bad decision. They rank 30th in opponent shot-clock usage, because they force teams to play at the pace they do with timely doubles, hard stunts, and aggressive play on the perimeter.
Players to Watch
Azuolas Tubelis is one of the front-runners for Pac-12 Player of the Year. He is averaging 19.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2.3 stocks- steals and blocks- a game on an impressive 61.9% true shooting. He is an incredible post-scorer who makes plays for others and is the engine of their offense.
Oumar Ballo is one of the best defensive players in the conference while also being absurdly tight on offense. He spaces the floor with his push shots from up to 16 feet, he can score against anyone in the post, and he is an excellent roll-man in screening actions. His defense will also likely keep WSU out of the paint consistently.
Cedric Henderson Jr is a transfer from Campbell who WSU reached out to in the offseason, but he ultimately chose to be a Wildcat. He has been valuable as a scorer from all three-levels, been a solid defender, and had some jaw dropping moments as an athlete.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
TJ Bamba has struggled a little bit thus far in Pac-12 play. His three-point percentage has taken a massive drop against similar athletes, and he struggled a bit with Pac-12 caliber rim-protection. The Cougs need Bamba to get back to his skillful ways as a scorer, and Arizona would be a great game for him to get going, as he will have an athleticism or size advantage on anyone guarding him on the perimeter.
Mouhamed Gueye is WSU’s wild-card. It’s hard to get a read on what he’ll bring to the game on both ends. He had two blocks against Utah State and three against USC, but none against Arizona State and UCLA. He has struggled to score efficiently against good teams for the most part, but he also had productive, high scoring games against Utah, Oregon, and Utah State. The Cougs need Gueye to step up on both ends and have a big game if they want to upset the Wildcats.
Jabe Mullins has been WSU’s best and most reliable player so far this season. When he has been properly healthy, he has been WSU’s best scorer on and off the ball. His shooting is top notch, and WSU has started running a lot of sets to try and get him looks from deep. He has also mixed in a few off-the-dribble shots, and he’s surprisingly good at creating space to get his shot off. Mullins seems to be stepping up as WSU’s go-to guy and his adaptablilty from deep has been, frankly, absurd.
What to Watch For:
Mixing up pick-and-roll coverage is something I wanted to see against Arizona State, but it might be vital against Arizona. WSU has been hard hedging with Gueye all season, understanding that he is not great in drop coverage around the rim and trying to take advantage of his mobility out on the floor. However, Arizona State abused this by blowing by Gueye and facing no opposition at the rim. Arizona could beat the hedge with their quick passing and high-low post-hits. WSU might have to keep Gueye near the rim despite his deficiencies as a rim-protector, whether it be with a zone or by putting him in drop coverage and hoping it works out.
Despite Arizona being the obviously better team, WSU might just be the more athletic team. That’s not to say that they should try to outrun Arizona, but they should be willing to use that athleticism consistently. It could be trying to get Bamba going as a driver or getting Gueye working in the high-post, but they should look to use their athleticism to generate consistent shots at the rim and play from there.
Question of the Game:
Will WSU win the possession game?