After nine games at home, the Washington State Cougars will finally hit the road to play a basketball game when they face the California Golden Bears in Berkeley on Thursday night (7 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). WSU hopes to bounce back from a tough double-overtime loss to Arizona, while Cal is seeking its first conference win.
Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Cal.
When Cal has the ball...
It’s likely that Cal will be without its most important offensive player—by far—when it faces the Cougs. Junior guard Matt Bradley suffered an ankle injury in the first half of last weekend’s game against Oregon State and didn’t return. From that point, the Beavers would turn an eight-point deficit into a nine-point win.
Bradley is among the top-10 in usage nationally (percentage of possessions that end with him when he is on the floor) and was taking 35.2 percent of Cal’s shots during his minutes. He has still been relatively efficient, so it will be a challenge for the Golden Bears to replace his production.
In Bradley’s absence, expect Makale Foreman, Joe Brown, and Ryan Betley to fill the void on the perimeter. Foreman shoots 70 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and hits at a solid clip (37 percent). Don’t expect him to attack the rim much. Just seven percent of his shots come inside. Betley also works primarily in jump shots, but he’ll venture into the midrange more often.
Brown is typically someone who rarely shoots, period, but when Bradley has been absent, his shot volume has increased. He’s more a distributor, and he is far more likely to attack the basket—70 percent of his shots have been at the rim, and he is a good finisher.
Cal head coach Mark Fox may also be without one of his top interior players against the Cougs. Grant Anticevich has missed the past four games after an appendectomy. If he does play, the 6’8 forward can draw WSU’s bigs out to the 3-point line.
Lars Thiemann is a 7-footer who has taken a starting role in Anticevich’s absence. He is an adept offense rebounder and finisher around the basket but is highly prone to turnovers. He’ll be flanked by 6’8, 255-pound Andre Kelly, who is Cal’s most dangerous interior scoring threat and also can hit a mid-range shot if necessary.
Off the bench, expect Jarred Hyder to put up plenty of shots in short bursts.
For WSU, removing Bradley from the equation makes the matchups that much easier. The Cougs have the bigs to defend Cal on the inside, and the guards can make life hard on the perimeter.
The key will be limiting Cal’s 3-point attempts and making them take tough outside shots. The Golden Bears have taken almost half of their field goal attempts from 3-point range in Pac-12 play, so hard closeouts and hands in faces could go a long way in shutting down the Cal offense.
When WSU has the ball...
The Golden Bears focus on preventing interior shots—just 31.7 percent of field goals against them come at the rim. They don’t give up a crazy amount of 3-pointers. However, they have been torched from deep regularly this season, allowing 39.5 percent on 3s. Typically, the best 3-point defense is not to allow a 3-pointer at all, and Cal could help itself by doing more of that.
Fox’s squad is very good at defensive rebounding, led by Kelly and Thiemann. They don’t block many shots, but that may also be a product of keeping teams away from the rim. Another product of that is a low free throw rate—Cal has not given up many freebies.
Turnovers aren’t a huge focus; the Golden Bear defense is below average in forcing them and below average in creating steals. They do allow quite a few assists per field goal made, so quick ball rotation to find the open shooter may be the best way to defeat them (and also knocking down open shots).
Since WSU has gone big, it is has been much better at grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the free-throw line in general. That may be tougher against Cal, which focuses hard on limiting interior opportunities. That means making jump shots becomes paramount, and WSU hasn’t been very good at that so far this season.
The Bottom Line
It’s strange to say, but with Bradley out, it would seem that WSU has the advantage on a pure talent level. That will help the Cougs defensively, as they match up well against Cal, particularly with a full complement of bigs. Wazzu will look to force the Golden Bears off the 3-point line and into their waiting frontline.
WSU should be able to continue its defensive excellence in Berkeley. It will also likely find plenty of 3-point looks. Whether or not they can knock those down will be a major factor in notching a win on the road.