The Washington State Cougars take the court for the first time in 2021 when they host the Arizona Wildcats in Pullman on Saturday night (7:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The Cougs should be well-rested, having been off since Dec. 23. The Wildcats last played on Thursday night, when they easily dispatched the Washington Huskies.
Up until this point, WSU has been playing the season on a lower difficulty setting. That has had its benefits, as the Cougs have upgraded in some areas. But against Arizona, the sliders are turned up on both ends of the floor, and WSU will be facing the most talented, most athletic, and biggest team on its schedule.
Let’s examine the major players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Arizona.
When Arizona has the ball...
After the emergence of 6’10 Dishon Jackson as a reliable rotation player, the Cougs have gone big with 6’8 Andrej Jakimovski at the 3, 6’10 Efe Abogidi the 4, and 7’1 Volodymyr Markovetskyy in the middle. They are going to need every bit of that size when they face Arizona.
The Wildcats have historically been good at offensive rebounding and drawing fouls under head coach Sean Miller, largely because of the athletes that have cycled through the program. This season, those attributes have been upgraded, and Arizona has become one of the most dangerous teams in the country on the offensive glass and in getting to the free throw line.
Both the offensive rebounding and drawing of fouls has largely been driven by a rotation in the frontcourt that includes 6’11 Jordan Brown, 6’11 Azuolas Tubelis, and 7’1 Christian Koloko. All three are in the top 100 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and all three draw fouls at high rates.
Add to that mix an aggressive freshman wing in 6’7 Bennedict Mathurin, and you have a squad that ranks 10th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and 14th nationally in free throw rate (free throws per field goal attempts).
Free throw rate is a contagious stat—if one player draws many fouls, a team is more likely to get into the bonus, and more common fouls will result in free throws. Unsurprisingly, much of Arizona’s backcourt carries solid free throw rates as well.
James Akinjo is a prime example of this. He does draw a fair amount of fouls, but he does not shoot many of his shots at the rim, where drawn fouls are most likely to result in free throws. Still, he has a high free throw rate. He’ll be Arizona’s primary ballhandler, and most likely candidate to take a jumper off the dribble—a third of his made 3-pointers have been unassisted. He will rarely chase an offensive rebound, instead getting back to set up the transition defense.
At the 2-guard, Jemarl Baker Jr. is an excellent shooter that will knock down shots when left open. He shoots well from beyond the arc and also in the midrange. Like Akinjo, he will make essentially no effort at the offensive glass, but that doesn’t mean he should be forgotten when the shot goes up—he is certainly a threat to knock down a three off a kickout following an offensive board.
This is the most talented offense that WSU will have faced this season. Wazzu’s bigs will be put to the test, and foul trouble could certainly be an issue. Boxing out will be paramount. WSU at least has the size to contend with Arizona’s frontline, which was an issue in the past. Still, that size can dissipate quickly if fouls become an issue.
Keeping Arizona’s guards, particularly Baker, under wraps outside and forcing them into tough shots could go a long way in keeping Arizona’s shooting percentages low. Then, it will come down to grabbing the misses and ending possessions without a second chance.
When WSU has the ball...
High offensive rebounding percentages usually come with a price—increased transition opportunities for your opponent. For Arizona, that is not the case. The Wildcats use their bigs to grab offensive rebounds at a high rate while sending guards back to stop transition. That has led to Wildcat defensive possessions being a full second longer than the national average and the 64th-longest overall.
That transition coverage from the guards allows Arizona to set up its pack line defense, which forces dribbles to the middle. There, help and shot blockers are waiting—Arizona blocks shots at the 20th highest rate nationally. The bigs will clean up the glass, too.
There aren’t any glaring weaknesses in the Wildcat defense. They don’t force a high number of turnovers by design, but they do force difficult looks. They can be prone to fouling at times, which is the nature of forcing players into the middle where it is crowded.
Arizona’s dedication to shutting down baseline drives does draw its defense in, and there are opportunities for open looks outside. Still, they close out well and are 70th nationally in 3-point percentage against.
For WSU to have success, it’s going to need to hit a high percentage of and a high number of 3-pointers. Attacking the rim is unlikely to have success, and penetration should instead be used to find open looks on the wing.
The Bottom Line
Arizona plays complementary ball—Miller’s offensive tactics fuel his defensive philosophy. Combine that with a big, athletic team and they should be a contender for the Pac-12 crown and have the potential to be a second-weekend NCAA tournament team.
This is going to be a massive test for Kyle Smith’s young squad. They’ve struggled at times rebounding against teams that are aggressive on the offensive glass. If Abogidi is going for blocked shots, someone will have to get a body on his man.
Smith has often deployed a zone in small spurts when Markovetskyy is on the floor, but Arizona will punish that on the glass (they grabbed 47.5 percent of their own misses against UW’s zone). I wouldn’t expect to see that much today, except in desperation.
EDIT: Vova’s out, Miller is in. Gonna be tougher sledding without the big man’s size.
WSU forces tough looks and that should continue against the Wildcats. That makes the rebounding all the more important. Arizona will get second chances, which will be frustrating, but limiting those second chances and locating shooters in the scramble will be important.
Offensively, the Cougs are likely to have a rough day unless they get extremely hot from the outside. WSU’s bigs won’t find easy buckets against Arizona’s height. At the very least, Wazzu needs to take care of the ball and hope for the shots to find the net.
KenPom predicts WSU to win in 22 percent of simulations, with an average score of 71-63. So, there are scenarios where the Cougs can hang with the Wildcats and even win. As always, that will start with the defensive end.