The Washington State Cougars will try to right the basketball ship when they host the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday evening (5 pm PT, ESPN2). The Cougs have dropped four straight, including a loss to Utah on Thursday where they never really had a chance. Colorado looks capable of contending for the Pac-12 title and does weird things like losing to previously 0-7 Washington.
Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Buffs.
When Colorado has the ball...
Mckinley Wright IV has been at Colorado for 100 years, and the point guard has spent each of those years slicing through opposing defenses and either finishing at the rim at a rate that belies his 6’0 frame or setting a teammate up for an easy finish.
In his senior season, Wright has kicked it up a notch by hitting on 64 percent of his shots at the rim. He’s also enjoying a higher assist rate while turning the ball over less. Wright is following the advice of every amateur Instagram motivational speaker by being the best version of himself.
Wright’s improvement has helped Colorado to its most efficient offense yet under head coach Tad Boyle. The Buffs have combined a lower turnover rate with a high offensive rebounding rate, along with an absurd team free throw percentage north of 80 percent, to post 1.10 points per possession in Pac-12 play.
The Buffs just don’t let teams take the ball, with the 15th-lowest steal percentage against in the country. That allows them to put up many shots, and while they are not an elite shooting team, they balance that by grabbing many of the misses.
Freshman Jabari Walker comes off the bench and grabs offensive rebounds at a very high rate—rebounding 13 percent of his teammates misses when he is on the floor. He finishes when he gets a second chance, too, hitting 70 percent of his putback shots. Oh, he also hits 3s and shoots free throw well.
The good news for opponents is that Boyle’s rotation and foul trouble have limited Walker’s minutes so far. We are more often going to see D’Shawn Schwartz and Evan Battey on the floor. Schwartz has struggled to finish inside and is the most turnover-prone regular on the squad, but he is dangerous from long range. Battey does his best work in the paint and is the best offensive rebounder among starters. What he lacks in height, he makes up for in mass and strength.
Colorado did get its tallest player, 7’0 Dallas Walton, back against UW after he missed six games. Walton draws a lot of fouls and hits free throws at a high rate. He may see extended action against WSU’s taller frontline.
Jeriah Horne is a knock-down jump shooter on the wing and cannot be left alone, particularly from beyond the arc. Eli Parquet starts on the 2-guard and plays significant minutes but rarely shoots or handles the ball.
As for the matchup against WSU, the Cougs don’t typically force a lot of turnovers, and they have struggled to grab defensive rebounds in conference play. That could spell disaster against the Buffaloes.
WSU has also put Pac-12 opponents on the line at an above-average rate. The worst free throw shooter in Colorado’s regular rotation is Wright—at 78 percent. The Cougs have been poor defensively of late, and this doesn’t seem like a game where that will change based on tendencies of the two sides.
When WSU has the ball...
Colorado doesn’t protect the rim well—allowing 56 percent at the cup and blocking shots at the 10th-lowest rate in Pac-12 play. Still, Boyle’s squad has cobbled together a decent defense by doing almost everything else well.
The Buffs have forced turnovers at the third-highest rate in conference play, have the fourth-highest defensive rebounding rate, and they have allowed the second-lowest free throw rate. Colorado also does a good job limiting assists, with the second-lowest percentage assist per field goals made against.
Having Walton back should improve Colorado’s rim protection. He’s the one true shot blocker on the team. Walker is athletic and might have the ability to block more shots but has been busy grabbing defensive rebounds at an extremely high rate—nearly 30 percent of opponent misses while he is on the floor.
WSU should probably look inside for some points, using their overall height advantage. Otherwise, they need to take care of the ball. Colorado won’t necessarily steal it, but CU’s opponents are giving away non-steal turnovers at the third-highest percentage in the league. That may be connected to the Buffs also having the second-longest defensive possessions on average.
The Bottom Line
Colorado had a hiccup against Washington on Wednesday—but the 3-point lottery can largely explain that. In that game, the Buffs made just 1-18 from deep, while UW hit 12-25. If the two teams hit only a shot or two closer to their normal percentages, Colorado wins.
It’s going to take some weird quirk like that for WSU to hand Colorado a road sweep. Maybe WSU’s height advantage can cause some weirdness. There aren’t really other Colorado weaknesses the Cougs can be expected to exploit. In fact, many of Colorado’s strengths align with WSU’s weaknesses.
KenPom predicts Colorado to win 83 percent of simulations with an average score of 72-62. To land on one of those winners, the Cougs will need to shoot at a high clip both inside and out and return to a level of defense that hasn’t been seen in weeks.