Kyle Smith’s Washington State Cougars will play basketball in Pullman for the first time since January 2nd when they host the Utah Utes on Thursday night (7 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The Cougs are hoping to snap a three-game losing streak after a tough road swing. Utah has faced a challenging league slate so far on the way to a 2-5 conference record but split last weekend at home in a confusing fashion—beating Stanford and losing to Cal.
Let’s look at the key players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Utes.
When Utah has the ball...
Timmy Allen is the focal point for Larry Krystkowiak’s squad on offense. The 6’6 junior wing is a threat on the dribble drive, taking nearly half of his shots at the rim. He also sets up teammates when he gets in the lane and is an all-around tough guy to guard.
Teams may lay off Allen because he’s an inconsistent outside shooter and typically doesn’t look for those shots, but he will take about two 3s per game. If he makes those, the defense is in trouble, but so far in conference play, he has hit just 3 of 16.
The key then is to stop him from getting to the rim, where he shoots 57 percent, and where he draws fouls at a rate of 6 per 40 minutes.
If a defense can force the ball out of Allen’s hands—easier said than done—Alfonso Plummer will be looking for an open jumper. Plummer takes over half his shots from 3s, but he’s also an adept mid-range shooter. He’s definitely not a guy to be left open.
Rylan Jones runs the point and is definitely pass-first. He will primarily take his shots from the outside. Freshman Pelle Larsson backs up both guard positions. He turns it over a lot and doesn’t shoot much, but he is dangerous when he does shoot.
In the frontcourt, 6’9, 220-pound Mikael Jantunen is an efficient finisher that can score from inside and out but doesn’t really create for himself. Two centers rotate to flank him: Riley Battin, a 6’9, 230-pound junior, and 7’0, 219-pound Branden Carlson.
Battin shoots a lot of 3s but has struggled from long range this season. Still, given past performance, he’s definitely a candidate to get hot at any moment. Carlson does most of his work inside the arc and primarily finishes off assists in the paint.
Overall, Utah has relied heavily on scoring inside the arc in conference play—the Utes have the second-best 2-point percentage against league teams. On the flip side, Utah has been the worst 3-point shooting team during the Pac-12 slate. The Utes also don’t rebound much offensively and haven’t been good at getting to the free throw line.
WSU has the best 3-point percentage against and the fourth-best two-point percentage against conference opponents. Does that mean the Cougs can lock down the 3-point line and shut down the inside? It’s possible, but 3-point percentage is an inconsistent variable, and WSU has been poor stopping shots in the paint the last three games.
The Cougs will need to make it difficult for Allen to get into the lane—Noah Williams will likely garner that responsibility. Utah lives off of dribble penetration and ball movement, so harassing the ball handlers will be key.
Preventing offensive rebounds on misses, particularly from long-range shots, will also be necessary. WSU hasn’t done well defensive rebounding so far against conference teams, but Utah might offer an opportunity to right that ship.
When WSU has the ball...
Utah’s defense has been predicated on defending the paint. The Utes feature the third-best 2-point percentage against in league play and block 2-pointers at the fourth-highest rate. Carlson is an elite shot-blocker—sending away nearly 14 percent of 2-pointers against Pac-12 opponents while he is on the floor, best in the conference.
Interestingly enough, Carlson is the only Utah big man that has blocked a significant number of shots. The 7-footer has not logged more than 24 minutes in Pac-12 play, so there is a chunk of the game where Utah’s interior defense is starkly different stylistically, at the very least.
Utah has forced a lot of turnovers and steals overall, but not as much in conference play. The Cougs have turned the ball over more often than any other Pac-12 team in league games, so the Utes may get back to their thieving ways.
There is an opportunity to exploit the offensive glass against Utah. The Utes don’t have a great defensive rebounder, and the Cougs have several very good offensive rebounders. Getting second chances could be game-changing for the Cougs on offense, especially if they struggle to finish down low.
The Bottom Line
The Cougs are in a tough stretch right now, and Utah looks like the best chance to get a win and avoid a long losing streak. Still, the Utes do some things very well, starting with Allen’s ability to create on offense and rim protection on defense.
KenPom predicts Utah to win in 59 percent of simulations, with an average score of 67-64. If WSU can rebound well on both ends, limit Allen on the dribble drive, and stop at least some of the bad turnovers, they have a good shot at getting back in the win column.