The Washington State Cougars will play their first of back-to-back games against teams from the state of Nebraska when they face the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks at Friel Court on Thursday. This will be the third consecutive road game for Omaha, which has traveled to Colorado State and Dayton for its previous two outings.
The Mavericks are led by head coach Derrin Hansen, who has held the position for 14 years. The program transitioned to Division I in 2011-2012, and had its most successful season at the NCAA’s top level last year. Omaha was just one win away from the NCAA tournament before it was upset by North Dakota State in the Summit League championship game.
Two top seniors departed that squad, but the Mavericks have a shot at contending for the league title again. Let’s look at the key players and factors for Omaha as they face the Cougs.
*Stats are from Division I games only unless otherwise noted.
Shooting guard JT Gibson has taken a larger role in the offense as a senior, using about four percent more possessions while he is on the floor this season. He is Omaha’s biggest 3-point threat, and he typically shoots at least five of them per game. He hit nearly 40 percent on 190 attempts last year.
Gibson won’t attack the rim much. The majority of his shots will be jumpers and he doesn’t draw many fouls. Most of his 3s are assisted, but typically his 2s will come after he has put the ball on the deck. Expect that to happen against the Cougs, who actively chase shooters off the 3-point line.
Running the point alongside Gibson will be Ayo Akinwole. He is playing considerably more as a junior, and seems to be adjusting to a new role as the primary point guard. His rate of assists has kicked up quite a bit, but so has his turnover rate. He also doesn’t appear to be getting to the free throw line as much this season.
Akinwole is highly selective with his 3s, but is proficient when he does shoot from deep. He was 19 of 41 last season and is 6 of 11 to start this year. He’s also from Papillion, Neb., which is one of those towns I’ve heard of because of beer. That’s the home of Nebraska Brewing Company, certainly the most famous craft brewery in the state.
Matt Pile is Omaha’s primary interior threat at 6’8, 240. He’s a very good defensive rebounder and solid shot blocker. Pile has struggled from the field this season compared to last, possibly due in part to playing some tougher teams—Dayton and Wichita State are both top 60 on Kenpom, and he was a combined 5 of 18 in those two games. Pile is a good person to foul, as he hits just over 50 percent from the line typically.
Joining Pile in the frontcourt is Wanjung Tut. He’s also 6’8, but a much slimmer 205. Tut is primarily perimeter-oriented, rarely venturing to the rim to take his shots and rarely getting to the free throw line. He’ll chase a block on defense when he can.
Rounding out the starting five is 6’4 wing Zach Thornhill. He’s also rim-averse (notice a trend?) and will shoot plenty of 3s. Thornhill is primarily a catch-and-shoot guy and will probably be second on the team in shots taken.
Overall, Omaha doesn’t use its bench much—just 22.5 percent of minutes, which is 318-most nationally. Marlon Ruffin, a decent rebounder that can hit a 3 and turns the ball over too much, will spell multiple positions. Darrius Hughes will give Pile a rest, and has been the team’s best player at getting to the free throw line. KJ Robinson will rotate in at the guard positions, and likely will hoist some jumpers in his limited time.
As you can probably tell from the player profiles, Omaha doesn’t spend much time attacking the rim. The Mavericks are 315th in free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempts). However, they don’t shoot a lot of 3s either—just under 32 percent of the time. That’s nearly six 3s per 100 field goal attempts below the national average.
So, the Mavericks live quite a bit in the midrange. That’s not all that common in this day-and-age. Why? Field goal percentages on mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers don’t differ all that much, while 3-pointers are worth 50 percent more points.
It might behoove Omaha to take a few more threes—they are hitting 38 percent and have a few guys that can fill it up from outside. That’s not likely to happen against WSU, who is 53rd nationally in limiting 3-point attempts, and is 19th in 3-point percentage against.
The Cougs have been a little above average nationally in limiting free throw attempts. Couple that with how they limit 3s and we might see a lot of 10 to 20 foot jumpers from the Mavericks.
Turnovers may play a factor as well. Omaha has not been good protecting the ball, giving it away on over 20 percent of possessions. The Cougs have thrived on takeaways, forcing the 24th-best turnover rate nationally thus far.
We can’t ignore rebounding—despite Kyle Smith’s emphasis on grabbing defensive boards, the Cougs have struggled in that department so far this season. Omaha don’t pose much of a threat, as the Mavericks are below average in offensive rebounding percentage. The only guy that seems to looks for offensive boards is Pile, so boxing him out should be a priority.
The Mavericks are primarily good at one thing defensively—limiting free throws. The Cougs haven’t taken many so far this season, and I would expect that trend to continue. While WSU takes a fair share of shots at the rim, it hasn’t been good at drawing fouls while doing that.
Wazzu has done a good job taking care of the basketball, with the second-lowest turnover rate nationally. Omaha shouldn’t do much to change that, as the Mavericks have forced turnovers on just 15.1 percent of possessions, 319th nationally and well below the average of 19.8 percent.
So WSU should have plenty of opportunity to take shots, but it hasn’t done a great job making shots in its first three games. Omaha has been about average in defending 2s, but well below average in defending 3s. Last year, the Mavericks allowed 3-point attempts at a high rate, but they have cut down on them so far this season.
However, that downward trend may be more of a product of opposition. Three of Omaha’s first four Division I opponents have shot 3s at a higher rate than their respective overall average, and the fourth wasn’t far behind. There will probably be open 3s to take, and a lot of WSU’s players are due for some regression up to the mean on 3-point percentage (hello, Isaac Bonton).
Still, Omaha isn’t a tall team, and they don’t have an elite shot blocker. You might see the Cougs try to go inside more, as they did against Idaho State. The lack of height might also allow the Cougs to grab a few extra offensive rebounds, something they’ve been surprisingly good at so far this season.
The Bottom Line
This appears on paper to be a good matchup for WSU. The Cougs can limit Omaha’s offensive strength (3-point shooting) and capitalize on its weakness (turnovers). There aren’t a lot of other threatening aspect to the Maverick offense. WSU has held every opponent to under one point per possession so far, and I expect that to happen with ease this time around.
On offense, just the power of shot volume could push WSU to a good offensive night. Not giving the ball away goes a long way. So could hitting a few 3s, but I’ll wait to see when that actually happens. CJ Elleby at small forward is likely to be a tough guard for Omaha, and force them into mismatches in other parts of the floor.
KenPom predicts this to be a win 70 percent of the time for WSU, with a 74-69 average score. That would be a nice, because a win is a win, but it would be even better to see the Cougs show out again as they did against Seattle.
Game time: 4 pm PT
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Stream: Pac-12.com and the Pac-12 Now app (log-in required)