The Washington State Cougars head south to Santa Cruz for a basketball game against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday afternoon (2 pm, Pac-12 Networks). Both teams are looking for a sweep of the weekend after dispatching each others’ rivals on Thursday night.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Stanford is playing out of its arena and instead moving to the home of the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors. So, this only qualifies as a partial home game for the Cardinal. Perhaps that will provide a slight benefit to WSU.
Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Cardinal.
When Stanford has the ball...
Senior big man Oscar da Silva is Stanford’s most dangerous offensive player, and he has taken his efficiency to another level this season. He is relentlessly attacking the basket, taking 71 percent of his shots at the rim and converting on 76 percent of those opportunities. When he doesn’t convert, he often gets fouled—he’s drawing fouls at the best rate in conference play, and he is a solid free throw shooter at 75 percent.
In two games against WSU last season, da Silva had little trouble. In just 45 total minutes, he logged 34 points on 17 field goal attempts. He faced very little resistance inside then, but this year’s Coug defense is much stouter on the interior. WSU is 18th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, seeing just less than half of attempts go down. Compare that to last year, when Wazzu allowed almost 63 percent at the rim (289th).
There are more players on Stanford than da Silva, of course, and WSU will also need to check Zaire Williams on the outside. The freshman wing will put the ball on the deck, primarily in search of mid-range shots. He’ll also take his fair share of 3-pointers (about 37 percent of his attempts). He hasn’t shot particularly well overall and is prone to turnovers, but he can be dangerous if he gets hot at his shot volume.
Stanford was without starting guards Daejon Davis and Bryce Willis on Thursday. If they can play, both are threats to penetrate. Davis is more likely to use the dribble drive to facilitate, while Willis will attack the rim.
Without Davis and Willis, Stanford went tall in the starting lineup. Head coach Jerod Haase put 6’2 freshman Michael O’Connell at the point while slotting the 6’8 Willams at shooting guard, 6’7 Spencer Jones at the 3, along with 6’9 da Silva and 6’9 Jaiden Delaire up front.
WSU does have size of its own to contend with that lineup. Noah Williams will likely have the assignment on Stanford’s Williams (provided WSU doesn’t again play heavy zone). After that, WSU’s forwards and centers all match up well in terms of height and strength.
Overall, Stanford has been very focused on getting shots from 15 feet and in. WSU’s defense has been very good at shutting down 2-point attempts, allowing just under 39 percent (second-best nationally). This game will be a test of the Cougs’ massive improvement on the inside.
One thing that Stanford struggles with on offense is turnovers, and they are particularly susceptible to steals. WSU hasn’t been as aggressive this year in pushing for live-ball turnovers, but Isaac Bonton and Williams are still adept at thievery. If they can do that, that could set up some easy buckets on the offensive end—and the Cougs are gonna need those.
When WSU has the ball...
Stanford is easily the best defense that WSU has faced and one of the country's best defenses—measuring 8th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. The Cardinals force difficult shots, particularly on the inside. Jones and da Silva are good shot blockers, and many of the rest of the team get in on sending shots away.
Opposing teams shoot a little less than 50 percent at the rim and just over 30 percent on 2-point jumpers against the Cardinal. Much like WSU, they make life miserable for opponents on the inside.
The Cardinal also force an above-average number of turnovers, so WSU will need to avoid the stretches of carelessness that have plagued it at times—particularly what happened in the first 10 minutes against Cal.
There are potential weaknesses in the Stanford defense. The Cardinal aren’t great defensive rebounders, and da Silva is particularly weak in that area. Efe Abogidi, Volodymyr Markovetskyy, and Dishon Jackson have been adept at exploiting defensive rebounding lapses. They are likely to have plenty of opportunities.
Another thing that leaves Stanford open on defense is the 3-point line. The Cardinal give up a high number of 3-point attempts, over 40 percent of field goal attempts allowed. If WSU can get hot from outside, that could shake the Cardinal front loose a little bit.
That’s more of a hope than a guarantee. Stanford’s defense is excellent, and WSU’s offense has struggled, so this figures to be a slog.
The Bottom Line
This should be a defense-first matchup. Both sides take pride in shutting down the paint and forcing teams into contested jump shots. Stanford is the better team on both sides, according to KenPom. The Cardinal are projected to win in 82 percent of simulations with an average score of 71-61.
However, there is a real chance for the Cougs. If Stanford is missing its starting guards, that makes it harder for them to create for the bigs. WSU matches up quite well defensively against Stanford’s strengths, although da Silva will be the stress test.
If the Cougs can limit da Silva somewhat and force the rest of the Cardinal into contested looks, they can slow Stanford down on offense. When WSU is in possession, they need to take care of the ball, knock down 3-pointers, and use their skilled offensive rebounders to get some points off putbacks.
It won’t be easy to secure another road victory, but these are the types of games that WSU needs to win if they are to take a step forward to being an NCAA tournament-quality team.