The Cougs are headed back to Pullman after a disappointing loss South Dakota State at the buzzer. WSU has quietly had a very difficult non-conference schedule with a few potential tournament teams despite them all being midmajors, and New Mexico State is the next in that line of difficulty. The Cougs will look to regain momentum as the Aggies come to Pullman in the middle of Finals week.
Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Network and pac-12.com (with a subscription).
The Aggies have had a very solid start to the season. They are 8-2 with quality wins over teams like UC Irvine, Davidson, and Loyola Marymount. They are a team with a lot of size on the wing and they use it well offensively. Just like South Dakota State, New Mexico State is a really solid offense with size that they use to compensate for their poor defense. The question will be whether the Cougs can contain their scoring and exploit the Aggies’ defensive weaknesses.
New Mexico State Aggies
The Aggies are a really solid all-around offensive team. Their main skill on that end is size, as all of the Aggies’ starters are 6-foot-4 or above. They are not a great shooting team numbers wise, but they excel in spot-up situations because they shoot enough to get guarded and they can all attack a closeout exceptionally well. They also are a great pick-and-roll, isolation, and post-up team because they use their size to create advantages in all of these areas. Overall, the New Mexico State offense is not as explosive as South Dakota State’s but they are so good at so many things that they can beat good teams in numerous ways.
The most common play that New Mexico State runs is some type of pick-and-roll. They trust their ball-handlers to create advantage and make decisions and thus they put the majority of the playmaking in their hands. Here, they run a simple staggered drag screen where one screener pops and the other rolls. Also, they will crash the offensive glass hard and they do that here off of a miss from deep.
The Aggies also play a lot out of the post. Here, they run a 50 set into a stagger screen dribble handoff and clear out a side for a post-up. The spacing on these post-ups can be a bit janky, though. There is a player that just floats above the free throw line who rejects a screen to go space for the big and the strong side corner back-cuts right into another back-cut.
They will also run post-up plays for their wings. Here, they run a little cross screen down low to get the wing into position to get to work in the mid-post. The spacing is a bit better here, but still weird. The passer floats to the elbow and watches the ball the whole time waiting for the shot to go up so he can crash the glass. They do not seem to have set off-ball movement principles; some players pass then screen away, the back-cuts are sporadic, and there is a lot of standing still.
This is a good example of what an average New Mexico State possession can look like. It starts with a high pick-and-roll, no advantage is created so the ball-handler makes the lateral pass to another guard. He then runs a pick-and-roll, no advantage is created so he passes it back to the original ball-handler to run another pick-and-roll. This looks sloppy at times, but they get a lot of good looks out of these actions and it just goes to show how much of the scheme is based on wings and guards creating advantages.
They will sometimes get a bit more creative in the set-up of plays, but the ultimate outcome still tends to be the same thing. Here, they run a north screen, which is a high pick-and-roll where the roller then down screens for a man on the block. It still ultimately results in an isolation at the top of the key, but this can be a way to get favorable matchups for their best scorers. This play ultimately results in a good cut that let them hit the game winning shot.
Despite their size, New Mexico State is an average at best defense with some major cracks in the foundation. They tend to play pretty aggressively when guarding the pick-and-roll, but they are pretty consistently out of position and that is a big reason for their 15th percentile ranking when guarding the ball-handler and 31st percentile ranking when guarding spot-ups, but it also helps them reach the 79th percentile when guarding the roll-man because they are so good at taking that player away. Another number to watch is their 24th percentile ranking when guarding post-ups; they have not played many teams with elite post talent, but they really struggle to stay straight up and prevent players from getting good position down low.
The aggressive pick-and-roll defense is seen pretty much every time they are put in drag screen situations. The big is going to catch high if the guard drives middle and ice the screen if he goes baseline. When the guard goes baseline, the strong side corner player aggressively tags the roll to keep the pocket pass and lob from being in play. However, this opens up a wide-open corner skip for the guard to make. The question for the Cougs will be whether they can make that pass and if the shooters can knock it down, because otherwise, this scheme could be really effective in taking our roll-men out of the game.
This over aggressive positioning can extend beyond just pick-and-roll plays. The Aggies clearly want to prevent rim pressure and they are comfortable letting teams get good perimeter looks so long as they can keep them from the rim. Here, three players follow the back cutter to make sure he can’t get a layup and simple relocation move opens up a solid shot from deep.
Finally, the Aggies are pretty versatile with how they will matchup. This play is coming off of a made basket, but they are comfortable putting their nominal point guard on the screening big and the big guarding a wing. This lets them mix up some coverages and allows for a big man to make a play on the dig here.
Players to Watch
Teddy Allen is technically a 5th year junior, which is always fun, and he has been stellar to start this season. He is averaging 17 points per game, and he has been the go-to scorer for the Aggies all year. He plays very inside out, establishing the jumper to open up driving lanes for himself in the pick-and-roll, but he can also get it going in the post. Allen is a scoring threat from anywhere on the court.
Sir’Jabari Rice is the starting point guard and he really does it all for the Aggies. He is leading the team in assists at 3.5 per game and he is only turning the ball over 2 times per game. He is a pretty steady presence at the point who is also their most consistent threat to pressure the rim.
Donnie Tillman is a former Utah Runnin’ Ute who has found himself in Las Cruces for his super senior season. Tillman is off to a bit of a slow start points wise, but he is really shifty for a 6-foot-7 wing and he is often times the go-to iso scorer. He hits a lot of tough shots with ease and he can create a lot of space with his handle.
Players to Watch
Noah Williams had a rough game against South Dakota State. He was reportedly under the weather, and he looked notably gassed out there for long stretches. Hopefully he has his wind back because it’s beginning to feel like the Cougs are often going to ride or die on Williams’ contributions. He is the Cougs’ best all-around playmaker and scorer and the Cougs need him to come up huge on a nightly basis to compete at the highest levels. He could have a bounce back game against NMSU with their lackluster defense if he is healthy, getting to the rim, and hitting shots.
TJ Bamba was a bright spot during the loss to South Dakota State and he is putting together a really impressive sophomore campaign thus far. The improvement in shooting and defense have been off the charts and his filling in his starting role exceptionally well.
Michael Flowers seems to have some of his best scoring games in losses. That’s not necessarily a direct correlation, but it does say something about his role when the offense breaks down. He is not the traditional, playmaking point guard and instead plays a lot more as a scorer. He has these big games when the offense isn’t clicking and he has to take and make tough shots. He scores less when the offense is humming and everyone gets involved, but that helps the team win. Finding his rhythm within the offense will be key for him going forward and he will need to take a step forward as a complete playmaker.
DJ Rodman had an awesome game against Weber State in the Cougs’ huge home victory and he has played well all season. His defensive ability might be needed against New Mexico State because of the size of their ball-handlers. If he is hitting shots and continuing to confidently attack closeouts, he could have another big game.
What to Watch For
Pick-and-roll chemistry has been a huge issue for the Cougs so far this season. They have struggled to generate rim pressure with their guards and the bigs have felt almost completely uninvolved when rolling. It is hard to say whether it can be fixed with the talent on the roster or if this is simply the way the team is built, but the Cougs need to find a way to maximize their bigs in the pick-and-roll because they have the talent to be elite play finishers around the rim.
Potential changes to the scheme could help substitute for a lot of the issues plaguing the Cougs’ pick-and-roll heavy sets. Things like running more Spain pick-and-roll with wing like Andrej Jakimovski or Bamba as the second screener or running more 50 spacing sets with a big up top could help the Cougs get moving more off-ball and spread the playmaking burden throughout the roster. Kyle Smith is a great head coach and I trust him to eventually find ways to alleviate some of the Cougs’ offensive issues and this could be the game where we start to see that in action.
Question of the Game
Will the Cougs bounce loss after a heartbreaking loss in Spokane?