Wednesday, March 8th marks the official start to the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament, and your Washington State Cougars kick the day off against Cal, tipping off at 2:30pm PT. A more in depth look at the Cal matchup is here, but let’s look at the bigger picture.
WSU enters this tournament on a six-game win streak and everything seems to be clicking at the right time for them. On the season, they rank 6th in the conference in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 7th in Defensive Efficiency, but those numbers aren’t completely emblematic of what they are when healthy. There is no aspect of the game where they are truly elite, but they have proven they can win tough games and there is not one team in the conference who they have not been at least competitive against.
TJ Bamba has rounded into form as one of the best scorers in the conference, and he has looked unstoppable in his last three games. He can do it all as a scorer and he has proven effective against any type of pick-and-roll coverage. WSU’s use of him in dribble handoff actions is difficult for opponents to guard because it takes advantage of his ability to shoot behind a screen, burst, and ability to slow down in the mid-range area. His defense is also strong and he is one of the best options in the conference to guard the likes of Tyger Campbell, Kerr Kriisa, and Keyon Menifield. His strength and footwork allow him to navigate screens and contain drives better than anyone in the conference and he also has a knack for blocking jumpers.
Mouhamed Gueye has scored in double digits in every game of WSU’s six-game win streak and he is a nightmare matchup for most opposing bigs in the conference. There are only a handful of bigs in the Pac-12 who can matchup with Gueye and his ability to run dribble handoffs, score in the mid-range, and create for himself in the post makes him a deadly player who could be in for a big run here.
The name of the game for WSU in this tournament will be to control the pace and run their sets on offense. WSU’s go-to offense is a Chest set, which is a variation of Chin offense. The goal here is to feed Gueye in the high post or above the break and have the guards screen away. This allows WSU to create some easy buckets off slips to the rim or relocations for three, but it also allows them to get into their dribble handoff games. They can playmake out of these actions and it has helped them to be an above-average offensive group on the season.
The path for WSU is a hard, but not impossible one. Getting to the five-seed was huge and it gives them the easiest possible matchup in the first two rounds. Cal is the worst team in the Pac-12 by a wide margin and they are likely beaten down from a long season. Oregon is a dangerous team, but WSU has beat them before in a game that they mostly controlled despite it only being a three-point win. UCLA is comfortably the best team in the conference, but WSU has played them tough once before and the loss of Jaylen Clark will give them issues when trying to match up with Bamba. Overall, WSU is in the best position they have been in to go on a tournament run since Ken Bone was coaching and the talent is undeniable.
The Cougs’ Path
Cal has been the worst team in the conference on both ends, and they are one of two teams that have virtually no chance to win the tournament. They haven’t won a game since January 6th and the majority of their losses have been in double digits. There is not a single of the Kenpom four factors on either end of the ball that they rank in the top half of the conference in and they are dead last in two-point scoring. They play an ugly brand of basketball that can frustrate some teams and keep games close, but they are only competitive when one of their players is scoring above their head or when teams come out lethargic against them.
For more on Cal’s style on both ends, read here.
Oregon has one of the more offense to defense dichotomies in the conference. They rank 2nd in the conference in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, and they are the best two-point scoring team in the conference. They are also tough on the offensive boards, ranking 2nd in the conference there. They are not a prolific three-point scoring team, 7th in the conference in three-point attempt rate, and knocking down 32.6% of them, but they can get hot and hit a flurry of them. They are one of the more flammable defenses in the conference, ranking 9th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and allowing teams to knock down 35.4% of their outside shots. They rank 3rd in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate, so they are solid at running players off the line, but teams who move the ball quick can still generate open looks consistently. They are a good rebounding team and they don’t send teams to the line too consistently, but their defense struggles to guard good mid-range scoring teams because of their deep drops.
For more on the Ducks, read here.
UCLA has been the best defense in the conference this season, and their star-driven offense led them to a 18-2 conference record. The main question for them will be how they fare without Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark. UCLA’s defense is predicated on their ability to force turnovers -1st in the conference- and Clark is the main factor in that. Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, Amari Bailey, and David Singleton can get steals, but no one is even close to Clark’s 5.5% steal rate. He is also their best option guarding on the scorers like Bamba and Jermaine Couisnard. Some of UCLA’s solid defense is also some opponent shooting luck, as they rank 9th in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate but 3rd in opponent three-point percentage. Teams like WSU, which rely heavily on outside shooting, can get hot from deep and give them a scare if Mick Cronin isn’t willing to adjust. Even with those questions, it is hard to bet against Jaquez, who is comfortably the best player in the conference and the type of player that can win games all on his own.
For more about UCLA, read here.
UW is 8-12 in conference and they are below average on both ends of the ball. They rank 9th in the conference in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, with their main strength being their ability to get to the line. They are a poor outside-shooting team, knocking down only 31.2% of their shots from deep. The Huskies are almost never winning the possession game either, ranking 11th in turnover rate, 10th in offensive rebound rate, and 12th in defensive rebound rate. They do at least rank 5th in opponent turnover rate, but their offensive inefficiency combines with their struggles to maintain possession to make it tough for them to put up points. The rebounding issue is really their Achilles heel on defense, as they rank 4th in the conference in opponent three-point percentage and rate, 6th in the conference in opponent two-point rate, and 3rd in the conference in opponent free throw rate. Their zone has weird weak spots on the baseline and the corners, but it is aggressive.
For more on UW, read here.
Colorado is the wildcard in this tournament and they are, perhaps, the most likely team to go on an Oregon State-esque run to win the conference. Defense always translates to the postseason and the Buffaloes are 2nd in the conference in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They are the best three-point defense in the conference, ranking 2nd in opponent three-point attempt rate and holding teams to only 30.2% from deep. They are also the 3rd best turnover-forcing team and the best defensive-rebounding team in the conference. They play a lot of small-ball, with 6’9 forward Tristan Da Silva at the 5 and two guards below 6’4 in the backcourt. The Buffs are a rough offensive team, ranking 10th in the conference in three-point percentage and 8th in the conference in two-point percentage. They are a solid rebounding team, but that is about all that goes well for them on that end. Colorado ended their season with a nice win against Utah, and they could be the team to shock UCLA in the second round if everything is clicking for them.
For more on Colorado, read here.
Arizona is the best offense in the conference, and they are looking to go on a big tournament run to improve their seeding for the big dance. The Wildcats are the reigning Pac-12 champs and they play the same style despite losing three of their top players. Arizona is all about bludgeoning teams with their pace and quick scoring, looking to blow opponents out so that they don’t have to play in tight, clutch games. Arizona is 1st in the conference in free throw rate, 2nd in the conference in two-point percentage, 2nd in three-point percentage, and 5th in three-point attempt rate. They are also 1st in offensive pace- 13th in the entire country. They are occasionally susceptible to turnovers -5th in the conference in turnover rate- but that is really their only weakness on that end. Defensively, Arizona is about average, ranking 6th in the conference in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They are 7th in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate and teams are shooting 32.1% from deep. They are particularly susceptible to teams with stretch fours, who force Azuolas Tubelis to guard on the perimeter. Arizona’s title hopes are going to depend on their defense and whether or not they can slow down high-level perimeter scorers. They have a tough side of the bracket as well, as they have already lost to the likes of Stanford, Arizona State, and Utah. The Wildcats are a talented team with a hard to stop offense, but they have weaknesses and there are a few teams who have already proven they can beat them and transition based teams tend to struggle in the postseason.
For more on Arizona, read here.
Utah has been a solid team all season, but they enter the tournament having dropped five straight. Entering the post-season with bad mojo is not always a death nail for a team, but it does feel like this team is on their last legs. However, the Utes are still a great defense, ranking 3rd in the conference in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Utah is the best in the conference at avoiding fouls, the 4th best defensive rebounding team in the conference, and they excel at defending three-point shooters. They rank 5th in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate and opponents are only hitting 30.9% of their shots from the outside. Offensively, the Utes are a bit of a mess. They are the 7th ranked offense in the conference, per Kenpom, and their spacing struggles are an issue that opponents can exploit. There is not much that they are good at offensively, but with a healthier Gabe Madsen, they at least have a perimeter focal point and an extra shooter on the perimeter. The Utes have the talent to go on a potential run, but they have struggled in the back half of the season, and have struggled with the top teams in the conference.
For more on Utah, read here.
Stanford might be the one double-digit seed in this tournament that could be dangerous. The Cardinal struggle in close games, but they boast wins over Arizona, Oregon, and Utah. They are the 4th ranked offense in the conference and they are the best shooting team in the conference. They hit 37.9% of their shots from deep and they rank 2nd in the conference in three-point attempt rate. They’re also efficient with two-point scoring, ranking 4th in the conference inside the arc, and they rank 3rd in the conference in offensive rebound rate. They don’t get to the line at all, and they’re susceptible to turnovers, but they’re an explosive offense in spite of that. Stanford’s defense is a mess, which does make it tough to see them going too far in the tournament. They rank 12th in opponent three-point attempt rate, 12th in opponent three-point percentage, and 11th in two-point percentage, which is difficult to overcome even though they rank 4th in opponent turnover rate. The Cardinal’s explosive offense could help them to a win or two here, but their defense is truly awful and it is going to make it hard for them to sustain a run.
For more on Stanford, read here.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State is the team with the most at stake in this tournament. The Sun Devils are right on the bubble for the big dance, and they need at least one or two wins to guarantee themselves a spot in March. ASU is the 4th ranked defense in the Pac-12 thanks to their ability to protect the rim and force turnovers. They rank 2nd in the conference in opponent two-point percentage and 2nd in opponent turnover rate. They do have some major struggles when it comes to opponent shooting though, as they rank 11th in the conference in opponent three-point attempt rate and opponents are shooting 34.8% from deep. They also struggle on the boards and they foul a lot, but their overall defensive aptitude is impressive. Offensively, Arizona State struggles to score efficiently and they rely heavily on their shot-makers to take tough jumpers. They rank 8th in the conference in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and their only strength on that end is their ability to avoid turnovers. They rank 12th in the conference in three-point percentage and 6th in the conference in two-point percentage. Arizona State is hungry and they are desperate for wins in this tournament to keep their tournament hopes alive.
For more on Arizona State, read here.
Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State is the youngest and least experienced team in the conference, but they’ve had some fun wins throughout the season. They are the 2nd worst offense in the conference and the 3rd worst defense, so there is not much to bet on here. Their only real strength is that they are 6th in the conference in forcing turnovers on defense, but there is not much else that they do at a high level. Their five conference wins have all come when freshman guard Jordan Pope goes for big scoring games and his team’s struggles make those far from a guaranteed win. The Beavers have an interesting crop of talent, but they are not there yet and their struggles will likely continue in the Pac-12 tournament.
For more on Oregon State, read here.
Colorado over UW, WSU over Cal, Stanford over Utah, Arizona State over Oregon State
UCLA over Colorado, WSU over Oregon, Arizona over Stanford, USC over Arizona State
UCLA over WSU, USC over Arizona
USC over UCLA