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What to Watch for: WSU vs. UC Santa Barbara

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The Cougs look to continue their hot start against an elite offense.

UC Santa Barbara v Creighton
UC Santa Barbara’s Amadou Sow in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos are set to come to Pullman on Monday night (8 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network), and they are a good challenge for Washington State.

The Gauchos are a step-up in talent from the two teams WSU handled with ease to start the season. UCSB was the best team in the Big West last year — they lost by just a point to No. 5 seed Creighton in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last year as a 12 seed — and they are a unanimous pick by the coaches and media of the Big West to stay at the top of their conference thanks to head coach Joe Pasternack and the program he is building.

The Cougs have had two solid wins thus far this season and they are hoping for a third here. They have been helped by some incredible second halves, but the Gauchos might not let them get away with a slow start like Alcorn State and Seattle U did.

UCSB Gauchos

Offense

UCSB Synergy Offensive Efficiency (2020-21)

The Gauchos are a truly great offense. They excel in transition and are always moving off the ball. They were in the 92nd percentile in transition last year and the 91st percentile in post-ups. These numbers should translate this year as their posts returned and the coaching staff clearly emphasizes the pace in transition.

Some numbers from last season might be a bit misleading though. UCSB lost their three starting guards in the offseason, including Conference Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin. They replaced these players well in the transfer portal, but it is tough to replace those elite isolation and off-screen numbers with those losses.

The Gauchos’ transition prowess isn’t found just in efficiency, but in frequency (310 possessions last season). They run whenever they get the chance and they can be really opportunistic in these situations. They will run off of defensive rebounds and other situations where most teams are content to slow down and set-up their offense.

When UCSB does slow down, they tend to focus on constant off-ball movement. This can make for long offensive plays when they are in the half-court. They are generally looking to get a quick-hitter in the post or get their guard isolated against a tilted defense. Here is a weave into a horns post look that shows just how much they’ll blend their plays together.

They will consistently run some pick-and-roll looks, but they are also likely to come after a lot of movement. Pasternack is understanding that his team doesn’t have a superstar to build around and he instead focuses on movement keeping a defense occupied and players who make good decisions.

The Gauchos are a truly intimidating offense and they will make for an interesting test for the Cougs’ elite defense. Their constant movement makes help principles hard to keep track of and makes communication key. There is a chance the Cougs struggle to keep up.

Defense

UCSB Synergy Defensive Efficiency (2020-21)

On defense, the Gauchos are a bit more up and down. Amadou Sow is a great rim protector and defensive rebounder, but they have a lot issues outside of him. The Gauchos are not a great pick-and-roll defensive team and they have a habit of over helping and over rotating in an attempt to get out in transition.

Here is an example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the UCSB defense. They allow pretty easy middle penetration, but Sow is there to clean things up (though it does end in a foul).

The impressive pace and constant movement the Gauchos have on offense sometimes leads to fatigue on defense. Here, the wing defender sits on a back-cut that the other defender had covered and he gives up too good of a look for the opposing team.

UCSB will sometimes bring out a press trap after made free throws. Their goal is to create turnovers and get easy transition points.

Players to Watch

Sow is the best player on the Gauchos and he brings a lot of value on both ends. He is a great post scorer and defender. He is not a great one-on-one defender in the post, but he does make life tough for guards on the interior.

Josh Pierre-Louis was a reserve for UCSB last season, but he is set to take a big jump this year. He is a great athlete and slasher at the wing, who can finish above the rim and pass. He could end up the go-to scorer for the Gauchos.

Calvin Wishart is a transfer from Georgia Southern who took a redshirt last season but is set to step into a big role this season. He is going to be tasked with replacing some of McLaughlin’s usage as the starting point guard.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch

Noah Williams had a bit of a bounce back game against Seattle U, but there is still another gear for Williams to hit. He still hasn’t hit his outside shots yet and his usage has been found a lot in the post. Playing against a team that plays fast and getting more comfortable with how to play next to his new point guards could open up Williams for a big game.

Andrej Jakimovski has had a bit of a bumpy start to his sophomore season. The turnovers have been worrisome, the finishing is still rough, and the jumper looks streaky. However, Kyle Smith is likely to still give him opportunities to prove he deserves a rotation spot. He could excel against the weak wing defense of the Gauchos if he plays under control and hits some shots.

DJ Rodman only played about five minutes against Seattle, but that likely doesn’t define his role for the rest of the season. DJ’s whole thing is that you know what you’re getting. He can shoot, play some on-ball defense, and hustle. Jakimovski and TJ Bamba are the bigger wild-cards that Smith is likely experimenting with for now. However, if this game is closer than expected, we could see some Rodman minutes due to his dependability.

What to Watch For

The plays run thus far by the Cougs have been really interesting. They have run a lot of horns sets or overload looks trying to get into advantaged isolations. It worked really well against Seattle, specifically when going to Noah Williams or Dishon Jackson in the post. They have also run some basic pick and roll sets and some horns wing looks. This variety has been fun to see thus far and it will likely continue against the Gauchos.

How the defense handles the movement and pace of the Gauchos will be a throughline of the game. We could potentially see some zone to limit the effectiveness of UCSB’s off-ball movement and keep our shot-blockers in place. The main key will be discipline, switching at good times and not getting caught up in dummy actions meant to distract from the real scoring threat. This will be the first major test for the Cougs’ defense.

Despite the positive outcomes of the first two games, there has been one worrying sign for the Cougs; the shooting hesitancy from Noah Williams and Mouhamed Gueye. Gueye has had moments of shooting touch in each of the first two games, but he also displayed a lot of hesitancy when open. Williams has not been as hesitant, but he has not been hunting those shots the way he did last year and the free throw shooting has been less than encouraging. These two will need to find their footing as jump shooters for WSU to reach their ultimate ceiling.

Question of the Game

Who will log more minutes in this game: Andrej Jakimovski or TJ Bamba?