The Washington State Cougars look to finish conference play with an above .500 record on the year, and in conference play, with an Apple Cup win in Seattle. The Cougs have won five straight and they could enter the conference tournament with a lot of momentum if they pull off the rivalry sweep against the Huskies.
The game tips off at 8 PM PST and can be watched on ESPNU.
University of Washington has been one of the worst offenses in the Pac-12 this season. They rank 10th in the conference in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and their struggles are apparent in just about every statistical category on that end. They are almost always losing the possession game, ranking 11th in turnover rate and 11th in offensive rebound rate. They also struggle to hit shots from deep, ranking 11th in the conference in three-point percentage at 30.6% while also being the 4th highest-frequency shooting team in the Pac. They are an average two-point shooting team -6th in the conference at 49.2%- but their biggest strength is their ability to get to the line. They rank 3rd in free throw attempt rate and they are shooting 74.5% from the line. The Huskies are a struggling offense, but they have proven they can have some solid games if their stars can get going.
UW’s main offensive set is a 50 ball-screen. This is where the pick-and-roll is set in the middle of the floor with even spacing. Both corners are filled, the ball is on one wing and the other wing is filled too. They run these high on the floor to open up more space and give their guards the maximum amount of room to make plays. They will set-up these ball-screens with weave actions or pistols, but the result is mostly the same.
A lot of UW’s offense is out of the flow and not necessarily a play that is drawn up by Mike Hopkins. They have a lot of playmakers who are comfortable with the ball in their hand, so they are quick to get into dribble handoffs or ghost screen actions to try and create after the initial set has been run.
The Huskies also play through the post a lot. They have multiple players who love to get touches down low and they are all comfortable scoring for themselves down low.
In their last meeting, UW got a lot of solid offense against WSU’s base hard-hedge scheme. The primary driver of that success was Keyon Menifield and his quick decisions. He was able to throw these cross-court skips and get rid of the ball quickly. This put the defense in rotation and allowed the Huskies to generate a lot of good looks.
WSU also struggled with UW’s early drag screens. UW plays fast and a lot of that is them getting into pick-and-roll actions before the defense can set. This allows them to generate some good mid-range pull-ups as WSU couldn’t get into their preferred ball-screen coverage.
Finally, UW’s sloppiness with the ball allowed WSU to create a good amount of turnovers and get out on the break. Getting easy offense and capitalizing off of UW’s live ball turnovers is an easy path to success in this one.
UW’s 2-3 zone has led them to be the 7th-ranked team in the conference in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They are a team of extreme strengths and extreme weaknesses on that end of the ball. They are 12 in opponent offensive rebound rate, but they are 4th in opponent two-point percentage, 5th in opponent turnover rate, and 3rd in opponent free throw rate. Surprisingly, they have extended their zone out enough that they are 4th in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate. They take away a lot of shots above the break by bringing their guards way out on the floor and it has helped them hold teams to only 30.7% from deep. UW is far from an elite defense, but it is always tough to prepare for a zone because it is like installing a whole new offense in one week.
UW’s zone extends well beyond the arc and it is aggressive running players off their spots. They are trying to force opponents to drive into two players and make them turn the ball over or pick the ball up in tough spots. WSU’s weak ball-handlers had some struggles against the zone and their lack of willingness to make contested passes made advantages hard to come by.
The main weaknesses of the UW zone are the corners and the high post. Good skip passes and quick decisions can create open looks from the corner and WSU should be hunting open shots for their shooters in the deep corner.
The high-post is also a weak spot of the zone, and WSU has an excellent high-post target who can exploit that weakness.
WSU’s go-to play against that zone is commonly referred to as a runner play. This is where there is a constant rotation of two wings around players in the high and low post. The goal is to shift the defense with passing and open up a shot or drive from the corner or deep wing.
The Huskies love to mix in a slight press to slow opponents down and potentially force turnovers. It usually drops back into their normal zone look, but they will occasionally get into man defense after the press.
Finally, UW is susceptible to good offensive rebounding teams and WSU has multiple players who can beat them up on the boards. Offensive rebounds are often the best time to generate open threes and it is a way for WSU to be efficient on the offensive end.
Players to Watch
Braxton Meah is second in the nation in dunks per Bart Torvik, and his bruising game combines with high-level athleticism to make him a force in the paint. He scored an efficient 11 points and grabbed 10 boards against the Cougs in their last meeting, and he was a matchup problem. His ability to get good post position down low and use his strength to push opponents around is impressive and it gives UW a place to go when offense is tough to find.
Keyon Menifield is the most fun player on the Huskies’ roster, and he is always a threat to go off for a huge game. He scored 27 in a big OT win against Oregon a couple of weeks ago and his combination of quickness as a driver and touch as a pull-up scorer is special. He can do it all on the offensive end and he is likely the main focus of WSU’s scouting report. They will need to contain his drives, but he is going to have a positive offensive effect even if he isn’t hitting shots.
Keion Brooks Jr is UW’s top-scorer and his throwback game is appealing to many. His 52% true shooting on 29.2% usage rate isn’t exactly ideal, but his mid-post isolations harken back to old school 80s basketball, and he can still take over games as a scorer if he is hot. He struggled to only 8 points on 16 shots against WSU- and the Cougs’ size at the wing gives them multiple solid matchups.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
TJ Bamba is coming off of a huge weekend in the Bay Area. He scored 22 on 14 shots against Stanford and 19 points on 12 shots against Cal. He was easily getting to the rim against those teams and his off-the-dribble shooting popped. If Bamba can be WSU’s go-to perimeter scorer again, it changes the upside for this team’s offense and gives them a place to go consistently in crunch time. His improvement rate over his first three seasons in Pullman has been incredibly impressive, and he is fun to watch when he is at his best.
DJ Rodman is vital against UW both for his outside shooting and offensive rebounding. He grabbed 7 offensive boards in the last meeting between these two teams, and his strength on the offensive glass is a huge boost against a zone. He only had four points in that game, but his presence was felt and they will need him to bring the energy again tonight.
Jabe Mullins hasn’t scored in double digits since January 19th against Utah, but this feels like a good game for him to break that streak. UW extends their zone into Mullins’ hottest zones in a way that can limit his effectiveness, but they are so soft in the corners and Mullins is going to be hunting outside shots against the zone. He scored six points on 2-4 shooting from deep and he also chipped in three assists and a steal in the last game against the Huskies and his presence was felt in his 23 minutes. Mullins should be able to shake free for a couple of shots from deep and his aggressiveness playmaking on both ends should be a nice boost for the Cougs.
What to Watch For
Keeping Mouhamed Gueye in the high-post is important for their offensive success in this game. WSU tried to keep him in the low-post early in their last meeting, likely because it was the best chance to maximize him as an offensive rebounder and because it would keep Meah tethered to the post, but it became clear that keeping him in the high-post was the superior option. He is such a threat in the mid-range that UW will have to bring Meah up higher, which opens up the rim for drives and cutters down low.
Using Bamba as the low-post player seems odd, and it can be hard to accomplish because it takes away another playmaker up top, but he is the best option to make plays in tight spaces down low and he will become a matchup nightmare if Meah is up in the high-post.
Defensive adjustments are a huge key for WSU in this one. UW was able to get a lot of good looks against their base, hard-hedge defense. Menifield was able to create good looks with his corner skips and Gueye was slow to recover to Meah below the rim. However, once WSU switched to a deeper catch and ice scheme, the Huskies struggled to create good looks on offense. An ice is where the guard defender is forcing the ball toward the sideline and away from the middle of the floor. This is particularly effective against UW’s 50 ball-screens because there is already immediate help from the corner.
Question of the Game
Will WSU score over .99 points per possession?