Washington State made the NIT for the second year in a row. This is a huge accomplishment for Kyle Smith and staff, and it’s exciting to get another home basketball game in Pullman. The Cougs host Eastern Washington, whom they beat by 26 points earlier in the year. The Cougs are poised to make another huge NIT run, and they’re looking to find their way back to Big Apple.
The game tips off from Beasley Coliseum at 8 PM PDT and can be watched on ESPNU.
Eastern Washington Eagles
Eastern Washington is a strong offensive team for the mid-major level and they play a modern style on that end. They rank 69th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency thanks to their pace and space brand. They rank 35th in the country in three-point attempt rate and they knock down 35.7% of their shots from outside. They also rank 88th in the country in time per possession on offense, as they consistently attack in transition and early offense. They also rank 3rd in the country in two-point field goal percentage, thanks to their transition offense, post-scoring, and spacing. Eastern’s biggest issue on offense is that they lack a real point guard, which is a big reason why they rank 297th in turnover rate.
Interestingly enough, the Eagles run the same base offense as WSU. Just like the Cougs, they lack a true point guard, so they like to play through their big at the top of the key in chest actions. They will pop their bigs above the break and then screen away, looking to set-up back cuts, open threes off of screens, or get into dribble handoffs.
They operate their dribble handoffs a bit differently than we do. WSU usually likes their guards to sit behind the handoff, forcing the defense to set themselves up behind the play and opening up advantaged rim drives. EWU likes to sprint off of the dribble handoffs a bit more, trying to bomb away from deep and trusting their shooters to hit tough shots.
Eastern Washington will get into handoffs in a variety of situations, not just out of chest sets. They will turn post-ups or rip drives into dribble handoffs consistently and they are great at generating open shots out of these actions.
The Cougs are going to have be attached to Eastern’s shooters at all times. When they drive, they are consistently looking to kickout to shooters, and bringing help is a death knell for the defense in this one.
Eastern, despite their two-point percentage, is not great at finishing on drives against good contests and thus forcing them to finish over contests is more beneficial than giving their good shooters open shots from deep.
Finally, EWU looks to run a lot and WSU will need to be sure to not get them going in transition. The Cougs are generally great at getting back and preventing easy shots in early offense, but the Eagles are particularly effective at creating looks for themselves there.
Eastern Washington is a flammable defense, as WSU demonstrated in their early season victory. The Eagles rank 226th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and they are likely even worse than that, as they got a boost from some opponent shooting luck. EWU ranks 339th in opponent three-point attempt rate, but opponents are shooting only 32.5% from deep against them. WSU went 15-30 against the Eagles in their last meeting and a solid majority of those shots were open looks. They also force almost no turnovers and opponents shoot 50.7% from two against them- 207th in the country. EWU is a solid defensive rebounding team, but that is about all they excel at on that end.
Eastern’s size on defense allows them to switch 1-4, which has its positives and negatives. Switching 1-4 makes it hard for opponents to create easy advantages with guard-guard screens and off-ball movement, but it also makes it easy for opponents to hunt certain matchups. The Cougs could take advantage of that switching with quick rub and ghost screen actions to create easy shots or drives.
The Eagles will hard hedge their big, rarely fully trapping but always trying to get the 5 out on the floor and preventing easy penetration. They help hard when hedging, which opens up some skip passes or connective passes if the ball can move quickly enough.
Eastern’s biggest issue on defense is simply their lack of athleticism. They don’t have an athletic advantage anywhere on the floor, which is why they give up so many threes. The Eagles give up a lot of easy rip drives and they plug hard to make up for that, but that often leaves kickouts to open shots available.
Players to Watch
Steele Venters, a 6’7 wing from Ellensburg, was the Big Sky Player of the Year this season and he is an elite shooter and scorer. Venters operates as a point guard for the Eagles in much the same way that Justin Powell operates as the PG for WSU. Venters has averaged 15.3 points per game this season and he has a ton of gravity as a shooter.
Angelo Allegri is another impressive wing on the Eagles’ roster. The 6’7 super senior is an elite outside shooter who was also an effective playmaker. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.4 rebounds a game. He is a tough matchup and he excels at running the floor and getting open shots in transition.
Cedric Coward is an interesting sophomore big-man and he might be EWU’s best shot at guarding the Cougs down low. Coward is an uber-efficient scorer near the rim, shooting 67.4% from the field and excelling as a rim-runner. His athleticism makes him a threat in transition and he has some solid touch in the post.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
Mouhamed Gueye will have the best one-on-one matchup he has had against anyone since WSU hosted Detroit Mercy. EWU’s Ethan Price struggles with quick, driving bigs at the Big Sky level and Gueye should have a field day if the Eagles decide to guard him without doubling. It is important that Gueye use his swiftness, isolating near the elbow rather than at the block because Gueye’s advantage will come with his first step rather than with moves down low. If EWU looks to double, Gueye will have to be on point as a passer, but WSU’s spacing should make doubling difficult.
TJ Bamba is going to be the most athletic player on the floor at all times and it could be a huge game for him. This is going to be the game where Bamba’s playmaking is tested, as the Eagles plug the floor on athletic drives and dare teams to make reads and shots. Bamba is an inconsistent passer, but he has grown in that aspect of the game. He has started to make a couple of passes a game that pop and he should be able to fire kickouts to open shooters if he continues to put pressure on the rim.
Jabe Mullins had his breakout game early in the season against Eastern and the Cougs could use a solid output from him in this one. His shooting should pop against Eastern considering the volume of open shots they give up, but his playmaking could also be a big factor in this one. If he can just take a couple of dribbles against a closeout or in pick-and-roll and make a good decision, it could open up a lot for the Cougs’ offense in this one.
What to Watch For
Running the Eagles off the line is a major key for the Cougs in this one. EWU is all about pace and space and keeping them from getting open catch-and-shoot shots is vital to having a successful defensive outing. If Eastern beats the Cougs on rip drives to the rim, then they just might have to live with that. Keeping them from getting wide open shots and always being there as their shooters catch should allow WSU to have a solid edge in this one.
Taking advantage of athleticism advantages is the main key for WSU’s offense in this game. This could be with straight isolations or pick-and-rolls, but it could also be with some more creative sets to get the defense rotating. WSU tends to run a lot of dribble handoffs, which is great for taking advantage of WSU’s specific talent, but they also excel at mixing in zoom exit sets like this. This is one of the most popular plays in college basketball and it is great at exploiting teams that hard-hedge.
Question of the Game
Will WSU take more 3s than Eastern Washington?