The Washington State Cougars are, finally, entering the easiest stretch of Pac-12 play. After a grueling schedule where they have had almost no reprieve from playing against the top of the conference, they get a full week to replenish and prepare for the Apple Cup. UW is struggling in Pac-12 play, sitting at 5-9, but they have played a similarly difficult schedule as the Cougs. Both teams are hungry for a rivalry win in Pullman.
The game tips off from Beasley Coliseum at 7:30 PM PST and it can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.
UW is a frustrating offense to say the least. They rank 158th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they’re outright bad at three of the four main factors. They rank 237th in effective field goal percentage, 297th in turnover rate, and 245th in offensive rebound rate. They are almost always losing the possession game and their possessions rarely result in efficient shots. Their one slight strength is their free throw rate, as they rank 184th there. They are also, at the very least, a good free throw shooting team -75%- and that helps them capitalize on their free throw rate. The Huskies play fairly fast, ranking 119th in average possession length, mostly because they like to run in transition when possible.
The Huskies’ go-to offense is to get into ball-screens early before defenses are fully set. These early drag screens help them cover for their lack of spacing, because defenses are not set enough to be in help.
They will also look for cookies whenever they can. If a team crashes the offensive boards but fails to grab one, someone is certainly leaking out and UW will look to find them streaking down the court.
Weirdly, UW runs a lot of their ball-screens out of the corner rather than above the break. This might be another thing they do to compensate for their iffy spacing. Helping from above the break is harder because the closeouts are longer, but it also makes it harder to use the whole floor.
The Huskies run a lot of simple horns sets that are used to get them into middle ball-screens. This is a Horns Flare set, where the guard goes off of the forward, the forward comes off a flare screen set by the other big in horns, and then the big comes to set a ball-screen. It’s simple, but it gets the spacing right for a playmaker to run pick-and-roll.
UW sets up a lot of their offense with weaves above the break. This is just something that teams tend to do to get set, or to get specific players in off-ball flex and cross screens. Below is a really creative cross-screen set, where there is a guard-guard pindown, and then a guard-big cross screen followed by another pindown. The Huskies love to play through their post-scorers, and this set gets them a good look.
UW has 3-4 players who are going to hunt post-ups whenever they can. It will often be farther out into the mid-post, but when they can, they will try to get deep seals and look to turn and score near the rim. Their guards are always looking to make entry passes into these post-ups and they often come in scramble situations.
Washington is good statistical defense, but there are a lot of holes in their zone. As would be expected with a zone, UW’s main strength is their opponent’s effective field goal percentage- 62nd in the country. However, it’s not strong rim-protection that achieved this ranking, it has more to do with luck. UW ranks 170th in opponent three-point attempt rate, but 16th in opponent three-point percentage. Some of this is because they make shots difficult, but a lot of it is lucky. For more on shooting luck and how it affects college basketball specifically, read here. UW is good at avoiding fouls, but they are awful on the defensive boards- 340th- and they don’t force many turnovers- 172nd. WSU has an obvious path towards winning the possession game and maximizing chances to score in this one.
UW’s base defense is the classic Syracuse matchup zone. It tends to be somewhat amorphous, with players switching side of the floor, rising into the high-post, and getting deep out onto the floor when needed. It more resembles a 4 around 1 zone rather than a 2-3, but it also occasionally looks like a 2-2-1 depending on when you look. It’s more versatile than most zones, but it also still has some of the classic hallmarks and weaknesses of a zone.
The biggest weakness of UW’s zone is how they guard the high-post. They will occasionally mix it up and focus on guarding the high-post rather than the corner, but that could be just a big of a struggle against WSU’s choice shooting. The Cougs should be able to get Mouhamed Gueye a lot of isolation looks from the elbow.
When UW does step-up to the high-post with their wings, it opens up the corner and the baseline for shots and cuts. Whoever is in the high-post needs to be a quick decision-maker, but they should be able to get a pass out to the corner before a guard can sink to cover it or read the sinking guard and make a pass back out to the top of the key for an open look.
WSU could also look to get their wings and guards into the high-post, which opens up really easy backside seals and offensive rebound opportunities for the big on the baseline.
This feels like a classic UW zone possession. They give up an open three which ends up in a miss, but then they give up an offensive rebound to compound that. There are some strengths with UW’s defense, but the weaknesses are obvious and apparent on a lot of possessions.
Finally, UW is a poor transition defense team. It is hard to get back into a zone when teams are running but they also lack the feel for playing man defense, which leads to a lot of open shots for teams that push in transition.
Players to Watch
Keyon Menifield has been one of the best freshman in the Pac-12 this season, and he’s also the best NBA prospect on UW’s roster. Menifield is an excellent ball-handler with a unique mix of herky-jerky change of pace and top-end speed. He is also a great shooter who can get hot in an instant. His passing in the pick-and-roll is also the best part of UW’s offense despite their spacing issues. Meifield has big game potential every time he steps on the floor.
Keion Brooks Jr is a throwback forward in just about every sense. The 6’7 Kentucky transfer gets most of his buckets in the mid-range and the mid-post. UW runs a ton of plays for him, which has allowed him to lead the team in points per game. He is not a great outside shooter or defender, but his Adrian Dantley-esque playstyle is unique in the modern game.
Noah Williams is the UW player we are all the most familiar with. He’s had a rough senior season, battling injuries and struggling to 9 points per game on 45.3% true shooting. His usage rate of 24.5% is baffling considering that usage, but there are also moments where his erratic playstyle and constant aggressiveness leads to big scoring nights. He is going to be very motivated in this one, but his former teammates in Pullman should share that motivation.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
Justin Powell is blossoming into a star for WSU. Like Mike Flowers before him, it has taken time, but his efficient scoring has been on a major uptick and every game he plays comes with at least one highlight. He’s not always consistent, and he has not been the go-to guy down the stretch, but he is shooting 41.7% from deep on a solid diet of pull-ups and step-backs. He also tends to go on his runs right when WSU needs it, whether it be to keep them in a game or push the other team out of it, his mid-game scoring bursts always seem well-timed. He should get a fair amount of open looks against UW and it is easy to bet on him to convert.
Mouhamed Gueye had the biggest game of his freshman year against UW in Beasley and he is poised for an even bigger one. Gueye has blossomed into a star as a sophomore, but it was much more hit or miss last season. His improvements have been under-discussed, and the transition of his scoring from theoretical to actual has been huge for the Cougs this year. Last season, Gueye hung 25 on the Huskies shooting 11-23 from the field and chipping in 5 boards and 3 assists. He will, likely, not be given the same number of open elbow jumpers as last year, but he is still a matchup nightmare for the zone. If UW decides to leave him in an isolation, Gueye has the tools to get buckets there, if they bring help or double, he is good enough to make reads and create for others. Gueye is a walking zone-buster and he is likely the main focus of Mike Hopkins’ scouting report.
Andrej Jakimovski had a very good LA trip despite not scoring in double-digits in either contest. He was a lead playmaker in both games and his defensive rotations are vital for the Cougs’ success on that end. Kymany Houinsou has had some struggles during his freshman year, but he was able to show off some passing in LA, and his defense on the ball is still impressive. These two players are likely going to be asked to be high-post facilitators at times in this game it will be interesting to see how they handle it. WSU needs to be a brilliant passing unit to win this game, and these two might be the biggest hinges on which that swings.
What to Watch For
WSU needs to control the pace in this one. UW is a bad offense in general, but they are a putrid offense in the half-court, so preventing transition opportunities is a great way to make sure that UW does not have an outlier offensive performance. However, it not simply preventing transition opportunities that matters, it is also being able to avoid getting sped up. UW ranks 114th in opponent time of possession, which is sometimes about teams trying to push and beat their zone down the floor, but it is also because UW will bait players into taking iffy shots rather than being patient. WSU’s ball-movement is their greatest offensive strength and it will never be more important than here.
Turning the Huskies over is an under-the-radar key in this one. WSU only ranks 287th in opponent turnover rate, but they should look to punch above that number against a passing-deficient Huskies squad. UW has a whopping 20.3% turnover rate and WSU should look to take advantage of that. While these might not all result in transition buckets, they will end UW possessions, which not only prevents shots but also prevents guys like Braxton Meah from being able to get on the offensive glass. UW’s sloppy ball-handling and careless passing should be a disastrous mix with WSU’s size and feel on defense.
Question of the Game
Will WSU hit over 11.5 threes?