The WSU Cougars will try again to pick up their fourth Pac-12 victory when they take on the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe today.
It’s the first of two times these teams will meet this season, which is fortunate, because ASU is one of the teams in the Pac-12 that WSU has a reasonably decent chance of beating.
On the whole, the Sun Devils have had a better season; they come into today’s game ranked No. 120 by Kenpom.com, as opposed to WSU’s No. 216. They’ve beaten a few OK teams, including San Diego State, Stanford and Colorado, and they possess narrow losses to Utah and USC. WSU can really only claim one such victory and one such narrow loss, which is why ASU’s efficiency margin in conference play — against better competition — is quite a bitter better than WSU’s (minus-0.08 points per possession to minus-0.16).
That said, it’s certainly reasonable to expect this to be a close game that the Cougs could win; that WSU was able to hang around with Arizona for 3⁄4 of Thursday’s game only adds credence to that idea.
The Sun Devils feature an explosive offensive attack led by the three-headed monster of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Torian Graham. All three average more than 33 minutes a game and at least 15 points per game — and they do it efficiently. Graham is the most dangerous of the three; the 6-foot-5 wing is shooting 39 percent on 3s and 57 percent on 2s. Big man Obinna Oleka also is dangerous ... as long as he’s disciplined enough to not shoot 3s, of which he’s only making 25 percent.
In truth, this probably is going to be one of those “basketball is a simple game, you just have make/prevent shots” kind of contest for the Cougars on defense. The Sun Devils’ offensive prowess is largely due to shooting, particularly from deep, and they’re not afraid to fire it up from out there. The Cougars, meanwhile, don’t do a whole lot defensively to prevent 3-point attempts and their opponents make them at a good clip. WSU would probably do well to work as hard as possible to deny 3-point attempts today, even at the expense of some 2-point looks.
The good news for WSU is that ASU’s defense is atrocious. In particular, the Sun Devils are horrible in transition: as a percentage of their opponents field goal attempts, they allow the sixth-most initial FGA and second-most overall FGA in transition. They give up an eye-popping effective field goal percentage of 61 on those fast break opportunities.
This is a game where WSU will be able to get out and run ... if the Cougs want to. Just like last season, they’ve gotten progressively slower as the year has gone on, to the point where they’re now 10th in the conference in possessions per game with the 9th longest average offensive possession length in Pac-12 play. Will Ernie Kent, who promised to bring an exciting, uptempo style to Pullman, take off the shackles and let Malachi Flynn, Ike Iroegbu and Charles Callison push the pace at every opportunity?
There will be one other thing to keep an eye on: ASU’s defense invites a ton of 3s; only a handful of Division I teams allow a greater ratio of 3-point attempts to 2-point attempts. That would be great if WSU was an excellent 3-point shooting team, but WSU is not, and it will likely be a not great strategy if the Cougars simply settle for jacking up all those 3s that look so tantalizing.
Kenpom.com predicts an 86-76 victory for ASU, giving WSU an 18 percent chance of victory.