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Preview: WSU hosts UW hoping to prove change is for real

Coming off an unlikely sweep of the Arizona schools, the Cougars have a big opportunity.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The first 22 games of the season gave little hope that the Washington State Cougars would be able to keep up today with the Washington Huskies. But then the Cougs went down to Tempe and Tucson and came back with a pair of double-digit wins, and suddenly today’s game between the Pac-12’s 11th place team and first place team looks a lot more interesting.

Tipoff is at 5 p.m. PT from Beasley Coliseum, and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU. You can also stream it on your favorite device via or the ESPN App if you have an ESPN subscription. You can also listen to Matt Chazanow call the action on or the TuneIn app.

This is a harder game to preview than normal, particularly because the Cougars broke from a lot of tendencies last weekend on defense, which is what fueled the victories. They played a ton of man-to-man, shifted their rotation to get a bit taller, and were aggressively helping on defense, particularly on post entries against the Arizona Wildcats. So, it’s not as simple as just looking at how the teams’ statistical strengths and weaknesses match up with each other.

U of A coach Sean Miller suggested there was an element of surprise that played into his team’s poor offensive showing. There will be no surprise today, as Mike Hopkins and his staff have had seven days to prepare for whatever WSU is going to throw at them.

UW’s statistical profile suggests that WSU’s newfound man-to-man should have a better chance at slowing down the Huskies than the Cougs’ poorly executed zone did in the first matchup, an 18-point loss for WSU in Seattle. In that one, the Huskies scored at a robust 1.27 points per possessions, one of their best outputs all season. They hit an astounding 55 percent of their 20 three-point attempts, but also made 58 percent of their twos, and 78 percent of their free throws, and only turned the ball over 11 times. In other words, they did pretty much everything they wanted.

The Cougs’ man-to-man — presuming they stick with it today — should do a better job shutting down driving lanes and challenging perimeter shots. One underrated aspect of the man-to-man scheme last week was that WSU produced an uptick in turnovers; UW, despite producing one of the better offenses in the league, actually has been one of the worst teams in the conference at taking care of the ball. Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle all turn the ball over on more than 20 percent of the possessions they use, and I suspect that generating more takeaways than normal will be a major key to holding down the Huskies, who almost certainly will make a lot of shots. After all, the best way to keep a team from making a shot is to end their possession without letting them take one.

One big curiosity I’ll be keeping an eye on today: the level of Robert Franks’ involvement in rim protection. The reigning Pac-12 player of the week was a disruptor on the defensive end for WSU last weekend, but that can potentially come at a cost — either through weakside offensive rebounding opportunities or, worse, the potential for foul trouble. The Cougars can ill-afford to have Franks sitting on the bench with foul trouble.

Because, as we all know, Franks is basically the Cougars’ offense at this point. He was missing from the first matchup between these two teams, and while CJ Elleby gave it his absolute best effort — keeping WSU in the game for a while with some ridiculous shooting — it wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with the Huskies in Seattle.

Franks, though, has the potential to skew UW’s vaunted 2-3 matchup zone. It’s a little different than the typical zone defense — in fact, labels the Huskies as a team that plays “mostly man-to-man” because of their statistical indicators of defensive style, even though they play zero man defense — but it’s still a zone, which means a superior three-point shooter with range well beyond the line can tilt it and stretch it and create opportunities for teammates.

Two areas where WSU performed especially poorly the first time around were in taking care of the basketball and offensive rebounding. The Cougs turned it over on a quarter of their possessions, the third-highest rate of the season, sabotaging a pretty good shooting game. WSU generally has been solid at taking care of the ball, outside of a couple of bad performances; the Cougars will be put to the ultimate test today and will almost certainly need to keep the total number of turnovers to 11 or 12 to give themselves a chance. Elleby, in particular, will need to tighten up his handles a little bit.

Additionally, WSU grabbed less than 20 percent of their own misses even though UW gives up offensive rebounds on 33 percent of misses, worst in the conference — this, of course, is one of the perils of playing zone. The Cougars have been a poor offensive rebounding team all season, but there’s a strategic opportunity here if Ernie Kent and his staff can devise a way to get more people to the glass. It’s probably even worth sacrificing some transition defense to do so.

I suspect this is going to be a really interesting game to watch. The Cougs are excited to both prove last weekend was no fluke and also do it in front of their home crowd, which should be larger than normal, given the consecutive wins and the opponent. They’re still decided underdogs — the Huskies are favored by 8-ish points, and projects it as a nine-point game that the Cougs win in 20 percent of simulations — but the Cougars stand a much better chance today than they did a week ago.