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More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Eags

Washington State hosts a depleted Eastern Washington squad on Saturday night.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Washington State preview James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars will, probably, play their second game of the season against the Eastern Washington Eagles on Saturday night (8 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The two programs are only about 70 miles apart, but haven’t played basketball against each other since 2011. This particular game has been in jeopardy, thanks to—you guessed it—COVID-19.

Five Eastern Washington players and an assistant coach will miss the game against WSU, according to Ryan Collingwood of The Spokesman-Review. The Eagles canceled their opener against Oregon after two players tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, one of those players has tested negative, and the other four sitting out against WSU came in close contact with the one remaining currently positive player.

There’s no indication as of writing this on which EWU players are out for the game, other than one being a starter. With that vagueness, take the following preview with an enormous grain of salt.

EDIT: Now we know!

When Eastern Washington has the ball...

The Eagles took a significant jump in tempo last season, the third with head coach Shantay Legans at the helm. After hovering around average for two years, Eastern jumped to 18th in adjusted tempo in 2019-2020. Driving that rise in tempo was a nearly 2.5-second drop in average possession length.

While upping the tempo, Eastern still took care of the ball well, remaining in the top 100 of turnover rate. The Eagles did seem to attack the offensive glass a little more, but still aren’t likely to be aggressive in chasing their own misses.

In terms of shot selection, EWU has definitely leaned 3-heavy under Legans. More than 42 percent of Eastern’s field goal attempts came from beyond the arc last season, good for 63rd-most. That tendency to the perimeter has meant the Eagles don’t get to the foul line much—though it seemed more of an emphasis last year as they shot nearly three more free throws per 100 field goal attempts (the rate of 29.6 free throws per 100 field goal attempts was still just 252nd nationally).

The Cougs focus on chasing teams off the 3-point line, while also limiting offensive rebounds. If WSU can force Eastern into more mid-range than it likes, while also clearing the misses, they could be in line for another strong defensive effort.

How the missing players impact Eastern’s strategy is anyone’s guess. Jacob Davison still will be the focal point for EWU. He took over 30 percent of the team’s shots while he was on the floor last season. He’s a versatile scorer, shooting his share of 3s and 2-point jumpers, but also getting to the rim at times. At 6’4, he has good size for a guard, but also plays the wing on an undersized EWU squad.

Davison would have been joined in the backcourt by Ellis Magnuson at point guard, but he’ll still spend plenty of time next to Jack Perry as the 2-guard. Perry, while being slotted in what is traditionally called the shooting guard position, rarely shoots the ball. When he does, he can be highly effective—hitting on 44 percent from deep last season.

In the front court, Kim Aiken is the top returner. He’s shoots about two-thirds of his shots from 3-point range and doesn’t grab many offensive rebounds, so expect him to float around the perimeter. Aiken will be joined, maybe, by Tanner Groves, who should see more time on the court after serving as a sub throughout his sophomore season. Groves has skill—hitting 39 percent from 3 and 67 percent from on 2s.

Overall, Eastern will play a guard-heavy lineup. WSU should have a size advantage, so it will be important for the Cougs to get back on defense and force Eastern into halfcourt sets.

When Washington State has the ball...

Defensively, Eastern has been very stingy in allowing 3-point attempts in two of the last three seasons. In 2019-2020, Eagles opponents shot 3s on just under 31 percent of field goal attempts, 18th lowest nationally.

That strategy was particularly effective when EWU had now-departed senior Mason Peatling protecting the paint, and they’ll need Groves to step up. Groves is a bigger body, and did lead the team is block percentage (percent of 2-pointers blocked while he was on the floor) last season.

With EWU’s smaller lineup, there may be opportunities for offensive rebounds, but that hasn’t often been a focus for WSU under Smith. However, given that Eastern will work to push shooters off the 3-point line, WSU needs to find a way to exploit the inside. Isaac Bonton frequently drives at the rim for the Cougs , but he has struggled in finishing or finding an open man. He’ll need to do better against Eastern, who isn’t going to give open looks from deep all day.

Eastern doesn’t pressure to create turnovers at any extraordinary rate, and given its shorthanded lineup, it’s hard to see the Eags pressing more. If WSU can avoid unforced mistakes, it should be able to keep its turnover count relatively low.

It will be an interesting battle on the perimeter seeing if WSU will find its way to shoot a high volume of 3-pointers, or if they will be chased off by EWU. Can the Cougs adapt to find more offense inside the arc?

The Bottom Line

KenPom has these two teams pretty much evenly matched, predicting an average of a 75-73 win for WSU. Given Eastern’s depleted roster, which isn’t factored into that projection, the Cougs should have more of an advantage.

Maybe this is a game for Smith to try more heavy rotation to keep fresh legs in while Eastern is not afforded that luxury. There are some freshmen on the bench that could stand to get a little more run.

Both teams will be looking to limit 3-point attempts, so we may see a lot of ugliness if the 2-point jumpers aren’t falling. The Cougs will need to find ways to capitalize on their bigger lineup.

Overall, it should be a fast-paced game. High scoring depends on if WSU and/or its opponent can get above that magical 30-percent shooting marker. There are certainly reasons WSU should win this game, and it would be disappointing to come away with a loss.