WSU is set to take on its second Big Sky opponent of the year with the Eastern Washington Eagles coming to Pullman on Saturday. The Cougs are coming off of a mostly dominating performance against Winthrop, but some cracks in the foundation began to show for the first time this season. EWU is a team the Cougs should dominate, so it will be a chance for Wazzu to bounce back strong against an in-state opponent.
The Eagles are an interesting team that find themselves in a bit of a rebuild. They have a new head coach, David Riley, and an entirely new starting lineup from their tournament team last season. They lack meaningful guard play and depth, but they have a lot of skilled wings and a track record of success. They might be a dismantled version of the team that almost beat Kansas in March last year, but they still have a lot of that identity.
Eastern Washington Eagles
Eastern Washington’s offense has a profoundly weird statistical breakdown. The pick-and-roll ball-handler numbers being this poor reflects their lack of guards. The spot-up numbers are solid mostly because of the solid shooting on this roster. The stats reflect the tape in that there is no clear path to success for the Eagles’ offense at any given time.
The Eagles rely a lot on 6-foot-7 guard Steele Venters to make their offense work. Here, he is used as a screener. He slips it and pops out to the wing, where they use his shooting and passing ability to run the play from up top. Down low, they run a cross screen to either get an open shot in the post or an open shooter into the corner.
The Eagles really like to post up their guards to take advantage of their size and strength. These plays are not usually run for the guard to score in the post, but instead to get the ball in an advantaged spot for playmaking. Here, a big cuts from the top into the open lane and he gets a good look off the post action.
EWU does not run a lot in transition and instead likes to get into their offense. They have a few principles they base their offense around. Due to their lack of elite guards, they don’t run a ton of high pick-and-roll and instead try to run a lot of dribble hand-offs from the wings, post-ups in the lane, and off-ball movement.
They tend to bring their big up top for a majority of their offensive sets, sometimes even having them bring the ball up the floor. Here, they get a side cleared out for a guard post-up and it results in an open corner look.
Here is another example of the big playing at the top. They set up a dribble handoff so the rim protector cannot just sit in the paint. The DHO into another DHO creates a good look from three, but it can also create open driving lanes for the Eagles’ guards.
Eastern Washington’s defense is one that definitely has the feel of a first-year coach and a group of mostly underclassmen. They make quite a few mistakes off the ball and that’s reflected in their 5th percentile ranking in spot-up situations. Some of their more positive numbers like pick-and-roll and isolation coverage could be related to the lack of elite guards they have faced. The post-up numbers being poor could be important for the Cougs as well. The Eagles lack size and length on the interior and the WSU bigs could have big games.
The size deficit the Eagles face is the main reason for their defensive issues. They don’t have any above average rim protectors and they are susceptible to post-ups and straight line drives. It will be a particularly tough task defending Mouhamed Gueye, Dishon Jackson, and Efe Abogidi in the post and defend slashing wings like Noah Williams and TJ Bamba.
Their youth also leads to issues, as they give too much space to ball-handlers and shooters and miscommunicate quite often. WSU’s veteran guards and wings should be able to take advantage of the space they’re given and the driving lanes that open up.
The Eagles also have a ton of issues when navigating well-set screens. They like to soft-switch when possible, but when a big is involved, they tend to hard hedge and recover. However, they are really susceptible to miscommunications that can result in open looks.
Players to Watch
Venters is a do-it-all wing and the best player for the Eagles. The Ellensburg High School alumnus is a good athlete who can shoot and pass. He is the main offensive hub for the Eagles and his skillset makes him a real threat at all times.
Ethan Price is a freshman big man who is the consummate scoring big for the modern game. He is great in the post and running dribble hand-offs at the top of the arc. He can really pass, too. His all-around offensive game makes him a focal point for the Eagles.
Mason Landdeck is a personal favorite of mine. Landdeck played at Zillah High School for his junior season and has worked his way all the way up to the Division I level. Landdeck is a great shooter with a good handle. He doesn’t do a lot for EWU yet, but the guard-needy team tends to go to him when no one is creating good looks.
Players to Watch
Abogidi has been quiet these past few games. His block numbers peaked against UC Santa Barbara and he only scored four points in the last game against Winthrop. Abogidi could really take advantage of the lack of size and athleticism on the interior for Eagles and he could bump the block numbers up given the Eagles’ reliance on post-ups.
DJ Rodman took a step up last game against Winthrop with some timely drives, good offensive boards, and hard-fought defense. He has a knack for attacking bad closeouts or running that fake DHO from the corner that leads to a straight-line drive — both of those should be open against EWU. However, the jumper has not really fallen yet for Rodman and he really needs to start hitting shots from deep to solidify a role for himself.
Noah Williams hit his first two threes of the season against Winthrop and both were reminiscent of his elite shot-making from last year. He is going to be the best wing athlete on the floor in this game and he could crack 20 points for the first time this year.
Michael Flowers is really finding his rhythm right now. He dropped 20 against Winthrop and has been a really steady presence at the point for the Cougs. The Eagles’ lack of guard defenders and lack of size both benefit Flowers. He’ll be able to create his shots and when EWU brings their big to the level of the screen, Flowers should be able to rack up assists.
What to Watch For
Second half inconsistency is one of the major themes of the Cougs’ season so far: they just are not closing out games the way they should. They go up big in the first half or early second, but then they let it get close(ish) towards the end of the game. The Cougs need to close games with big wins and not let the other team cut their deficits if they want to rise in the NET rankings — they’re one of the factors for NCAA tournament selection, and margin of victory is part of the calculation. These margins could eventually make a difference in post-season placement.
Defensive rhythm has been a bit of an issue for WSU in the early season. The Cougs are known as an elite defense, but they have not lived up to that moniker so far. Winthrop shot an insane percentage from deep and the Cougs let them get too many shots off. The lack of size in the backcourt has played into the worse defense, but the Cougs also are forcing fewer turnovers and closing out slower. Playing with increased intensity and funneling shooters into our bigs could help us find some defensive consistency.
Question of the Game
Will the Cougs have an offensive rebound percentage above 30%?