The Washington State Cougars are seeking a fifth-straight home win when they host the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday (5 pm, Pac-12 Network). The Wildcats have struggled away from home this season but are a big, athletic team that will test an improved but depleted WSU squad.
You might be wondering why this preview is going up before Arizona plays its game against Washington, which would give me at least 40 minutes more of data to analyze. Well, it has to do with this link to Stubhub tickets, and a required time for which I needed to post this. Feel free to click on that link and make us look good.
Back to the game, Sean Miller’s Arizona team might be unranked by the voting public, but they are top 20 in both KenPom’s rankings and the NET rating. Like all of Miller’s teams, they play defense, but they also possess a formidable offense.
Let’s see what Arizona has for the Cougs this weekend.
The Wildcats are led by a trio of freshmen—Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, and Josh Green. Mannion and Nnaji are the biggest threats to WSU’s defense, with the former being an explosive guard and the latter being an athletic giant.
Mannion is the facilitator—he actually profiles out very similar to Colorado’s McKinley Wright in terms of effectiveness and skillsets, but has three inches on the CU point guard. Mannion can knock down long range and get to the rim, but he is most dangerous setting up his teammates.
It’s particularly bad for opponents when he sets up Nnaji. The 6’11, 240-pound center is shooting 67 percent on 2-pointers, and gets to the line at the 40th-best rate nationally. When there, he knocks down nearly 80 percent of his freebies. He will be a tough guard for the Wazzu bigs.
Dylan Smith and Jemarl Baker are the 3-point specialists that can’t be left alone on a double of Nnaji or help on a Mannion drive. Both are hitting over 40 percent from downtown, and you can add Max Hazzard coming off the bench to shoot almost 39 percent as well.
Overall, Arizona is a great shooting team both inside and outside the 3-point line. They don’t favor the 3 as much as you would think—just 271st in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt. Given that WSU has given up the lowest rate of 3s on defense in Pac-12 play, I would expect most of the Arizona offense to work inside.
When there, Nnaji and Chase Jeter—if he can play—could give WSU hell on the offensive glass. If Jeter can’t go, his backup Stone Gettings is a much more perimeter oriented player and would give the Wildcats another shooter at the expense of offensive rebounding.
On defense, the drop off from Jeter to Gettings would be significant. Jeter is a better rim protector and defensive rebounder. Nnaji is still there to block shots and grab boards, but the combination of he and Jeter is tough.
Arizona’s guards will be able to match the size of WSU’s guards with the 6’3 Mannion, 6’5 Smith and 6’4 Baker. The Wildcats are just big—they are 17th nationally in average height.
All that height means UA is very good at defending inside the arc—having allowed the 23rd-lowest 2-point percentage nationally. That does come at the expense of a lot of fouls, but WSU doesn’t seem to be the team to exploit that weakness. That 2-point defense is scary for the Cougs, who have struggled inside against nearly every team in Pac-12 play.
If WSU is going to have a chance, they are going to need to keep up the hot shooting from the outside. They just haven’t shown the ability to consistently get good looks on the inside, and the Wildcats are specialized in shutting that down.
Could WSU get some quick offense out of steals as it did against Arizona State? That will be tough—Arizona is 7th nationally in steal percentage allowed.
This is just not a good matchup for the Cougs. Arizona possesses all the abilities that have given WSU trouble this season, particularly its athleticism and height. It’s not all bad on KenPom—his laptop still gives Wazzu a 20 percent chance to win, so it’s better than nothing.
The hope for Cougar fans is that Arizona still can’t win on the road and Washington State still can’t lose at home, because on a neutral floor nearly everything favors the Wildcats.
5 pm PT (Saturday, Feb. 1)
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