The Washington State Cougars will defend their basketball village against a Portland State Vikings attack on Sunday afternoon in Pullman (2 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). WSU is undefeated on the year but has made things interesting, with every game so far coming down to a last-minute defensive stop.
Portland State has started 1-1, losing its opener against intracity rival Portland before easily dispatching the NAIA Northwest University Eagles.* The Vikings ended 2019-2020 on a hot stretch before the lockdown, but head coach Barret Peery lost seven of his top eight rotation players from that squad.
*This the second like opponent for WSU and Northwest. So file those results away for when you need to talk smack to a Northwest alum.
Let’s dig into the key players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Vikings.
When Portland State has the ball...
While the Vikings lost much of their production from a season ago, they are not without experience. To fill in the gaps, Perry has added a slew of upperclassmen transfers: James Scott (Temple), Elijah Hardy (Washington), Khalid Thomas (Arizona State), John Hall (Evansville), Charles Jones (Utah), and Amari McCray (Pacific).
All six of those players are key rotation players, with the first five likely making up the starting five for Portland State. James Scott is the assumed lead scorer, carrying the bulk of the offense while also distributing in the Vikings’ game against Portland. While at Temple (when he went by Monty), he was primarily a catch-and-shoot guy, taking 43 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and another 27 percent on 2-point jumpers. His 3-point percentage wasn’t great—26 percent. However, he did shoot above 35 percent from deep in his first two seasons at Kennesaw State. He’ll have the green light from anywhere, so expect lots of shots from Scott.
Hardy, the former Husky, will handle the point guard duties and figures to feature prominently. He struggled mightily from the field at UW but will have a much larger role for the Vikings. While he mostly shot 3-pointers (poorly) for the Huskies, expect him to be much more assertive in this game. Jones rounds out the backcourt as primarily a third-or-fourth option that floats around the perimeter.
The transfers have given Portland State some legitimate size in the frontcourt. The former Sun Devil Thomas checks in at 6’10, 210, McCray is 6’10, 265, and Hall measures 6’7, 220. Thomas is a threat from deep, having launched eight 3s against Portland and connecting three of them.
Stylistically, Peery’s teams have typically been high tempo, so expect the Vikings to push the pace off rebounds and turnovers. His squads have also attacked the offensive glass. Turnovers and free throws rate seem to depend on players he has on the court. On the turnover side, it’s interesting to see if some of these transfers getting expanded roles will lead to more giveaways as they adjust.
There’s some talent to contend with for the Cougs when the Sun Devils are on offense, and it will be imperative for WSU to lock down the offensive glass. If Portland State is sending guys to crash, sealing them off could lead to transition opportunities going the other way.
When WSU has the ball...
Throughout his time at Portland State, Peery seems to have focused on limiting 3-point attempts. His teams have also been solid at forcing turnovers, but that aggressiveness comes at the cost of giving up a high number of free throws. The Vikings regularly have shorter possessions on defense than average, so expect them to gamble and try to push the Cougs to commit early in the shot clock.
If the Cougs are funneled to the rim, Portland State does have Hall as a shot-blocking presence. WSU won’t simply be able to just be bigger to score, which might be a benefit because when the Cougs have tried to do that, it tends to halt the offense's flow.
While WSU doesn’t typically crash the offensive glass, they may find opportunities to collect their own misses. Portland State is often focused on pushing the break, which has left it susceptible to offensive rebounds.
Overall, the Vikings have had inferior defenses under Peery. To do well, the Cougs will have to find their way around inside the arc, possibly working the midrange game or using penetration to create easy shots for the bigs. I expect Portland State to chase them off the 3-point line, so 3s will primarily need to be created through quick ball rotation and fast-break chances.
Can WSU finally put together a solid offensive performance? It hasn’t so far, even against some bad defenses.
The Bottom Line
While Portland State’s KenPom rating is far from impressive (303), it belies some of the talent's potential on the roster. There is a heap of guys who have transferred from bigger schools, meaning at the very least, the Vikings won’t necessarily be bullied athletically.
This will be a fast-paced game, and if the Cougs can get stops, they should look to push and get things going in transition. That does play into Portland State’s style, but given how poor Wazzu has been offensively, it would be of benefit to look for any easy buckets it can find.
KenPom predicts WSU to win 85 percent of simulations, with an average score of 80-68. It will probably be closer than that. It should be the default to expect that the Cougs will struggle to score until proven otherwise, and if they aren’t scoring efficiently, they won’t run away from anybody. Still, one would hope they have enough defensively to pull out another win.