The Washington State Cougars will face their first road test of the Kyle Smith era against the Santa Clara Broncos on Tuesday evening. The Broncos beat the Cougs in Spokane last season and have returned most of that roster.
Santa Clara is led by a familiar face in Herb Sendek. He’s a proven coach, who took NC State to many NCAA tournaments before having less frequent success at Arizona State. This has the potential to be his best Bronco team since he arrived in 2017.
After finishing last year ranked No. 186 in KenPom, the Broncos check in at No. 122 currently. With most of the rotation returning, that jump is expected to come from an added year of experience for many who were freshmen and sophomores in 2018-2019. However, there is one key addition to the team in Wake Forest transfer DJ Mitchell.
Let’s examine the key players and trends for Santa Clara vs. the Cougs.
Santa Clara’s Players
Mitchell has the potential to be a real impact player for the Broncos against WSU and going forward. He’s an athletic wing/forward who focuses primarily on the perimeter, but has the athletic ability to get to the rim and finish inside as well.
In his last season at Wake, more than 50 percent of his shots were from beyond the 3-point line. That will probably change at Santa Clara as he is asked to take a bigger role in the offense. He is good shooter, hitting 43 percent of his 3s and 55 percent of his 2s as a sophomore.
Adding Mitchell gives Santa Clara a big frontcourt. The main rotation includes the 6’8 Mitchell primarily at small forward, with 6’9 Josip Vrankic at power forward, and the combination of 6’11 Guglielmo Caruso and 6’10 Jaden Bediako splitting time at center.
Vrankic is Santa Clara’s primary interior scorer. Nearly two-thirds of his shots last season came at the rim. He has a good touch on free throws, hitting 72 percent in his fairly frequent trips to the line. Caruso will step out for jumpers a little more often, and is much more adept in the mid-range. The freshman Bediako is the biggest body of the group, checking at 240 pounds.
The backcourt is led by scoring guard Tahj Eaddy. He won’t come off the floor much, and takes more than half of his shots from beyond the arc, where he hit 37 percent last season. Just 17 percent of his shots came at the rim, so expect to see him shoot lots of jumpers.
Eaddy had the lowest percentage of assisted 2-pointers and 3-pointers on the team last season. He is the guy that will create his own shot most often.
Trey Wertz will get most of the run at point guard, although he is more of a 20-25 minute per game player. He has struggled mightily with turnovers—turning over on nearly 40 percent of the possessions that ended with him in 2018-2019.
That’s against a very good assist rate that ranked in the top 100 nationally, but he seems to be just as likely to do harm as do good when the ball is in his hands. Don’t expect him to shoot much, he is primarily out there to find open shots for others.
Filling out the rotation is 6’6 freshman combo guard Jalen Williams. He was a three-star recruit in the 2019 class and held an offer from Nevada.
Santa Clara’s Offense
The Broncos are typically a slow-paced offense under Sendek. They fell in the 300s in adjusted tempo his first two seasons, while speeding it up just a bit last season. Sendek won’t have his players chase many offensive rebounds, having them instead sprint back to set up the defense. Expect WSU to control the glass on the defensive end.
At times, he has had teams that shoot a high percentage of 3s, but that took at step back last season. Still, Mitchell and Eaddy will be worth watching outside. You can expect WSU to chase them off the 3-point line as much as possible, as Smith seems to emphasize limiting and challenging 3-pointers.
Largely because of Wertz, Santa Clara struggled to take care of the ball last season. You would typically expect a player to dial back turnovers as they gain experience, so if Wertz can do that it will largely fix much of that issue for the Broncos. Still, that’s a player that WSU’s guards—Jaylen Shead and Isaac Bonton—should be looking to pressure.
The Cougar frontcourt will be tested by the size and athleticism of Santa Clara’s bigs. This is a much better offense than WSU faced against Seattle, with far more dangerous and diverse weapons.
That’s not to say they are elite in any way, but if Wertz takes care of the ball there are plenty of guys that can fill it up.
Santa Clara’s Defense
Sendek ran a matchup zone when he was at Arizona State, and based on Santa Clara’s statistical profile, he is doing much of the same now. Seeing a well-coached matchup zone can give any offense trouble, particularly one that struggles in the halfcourt.
WSU will have to improve on its halfcourt offense against Santa Clara. The Broncos are going to do all they can to limit transition baskets. There will, however, be plenty of space to shoot 3s. Smith is giving many players the green light to launch from deep this season, and knocking down some early will certainly help loosen up that zone.
Offensive rebounding will also play a key role. Santa Clara’s interior players seem to all chase blocks quite a bit, and in a zone there will be opportunities to grab second chances. It’s doubtful that the offensive glass will be a season-long strength for the Cougs, but they did well grabbing offensive boards against Seattle and can really help themselves out by doing the same at Santa Clara.
Unlike the matchup zones at Syracuse and Washington, Sendek’s have rarely forced turnovers at a high rate. Given that the Cougs turned the ball over just three times in its opener, we should expect to see Washington State with low turnover numbers again.
The Bottom Line
KenPom gives WSU a 35 percent chance to go on the road and beat Santa Clara, but you can take the early season projections for the Cougs with the correct amount of salt. With so many new players and a new coach, it’s hard to say exactly what they can do.
Santa Clara will provide a nice measuring stick, with plenty of talented offensive players and an obnoxious defensive philosophy. If the Cougs can knock down a solid percentage of 3s and dominate rebounding on both ends, they have a good shot of getting out of Santa Clara with a win.
How to Watch
Game time: 7 pm PT
Stream: Stadium TV