The Cougs are coming off their fourth loss of the season and second in a row at home against New Mexico State. WSU has dealt with some nagging injuries and illnesses throughout the program, and they hope to get healthy and back on track against the Northern Colorado Bears (1 pm PT, Pac-12 Washington, Pac-12 Live). The Cougs desperately need a win to get their season back on track.
The Bears enter the Palouse at 6-5 with a few tough losses. The Bears are more in line with the early Mid-Major teams the Cougs played (Seattle U, UC Santa Barbara, and Winthrop) rather than teams that they have played recently (Weber State and South Dakota State). Hopefully, this means the outcome can end more in the Cougs’ favor than the past two games against Mid-Major competition.
Northern Colorado Bears
The Bears are another really solid offense that the Cougs have to face. Just like New Mexico State and South Dakota State, Northern Colorado excels in spot-up situations and in the pick-and-roll. They run a tight, 6-7 man rotation that is full of guards who can play on the perimeter, hit shots, and hit tough pull-ups. They will attempt to play out of the post occasionally, but they have not been very effective at it, and they have shied away from it against high-major competition. Their isolation and pick-and-roll numbers are incredible though and they will be a test for the WSU perimeter defense.
Northern Colorado does not run a super complex scheme. They are very trusting of their perimeter talent to create advantages with the pick-and-roll or in isolation and they play off of that. This is a dribble-drive sequence where three different Bears get an opportunity to drive either off a standstill, off the catch, or with a screen being set. A lot of Northern Colorado’s offensive possessions look like some variation of this.
The Bears are not afraid of early shots either. They punish teams that go under the screen and they will do that with 21 seconds on the shot clock if they have to. This is a pretty consistent source of offense for them; off of the defensive board they push it slightly, set a drag screen before the defense is set, and pull up as the defender goes under the screen. If the defender goes over, this can still be a very effective play because the shot-blocker is often out of position, and it makes drives a lot easier.
The Bears also run a lot of extended Horns sets with their two bigs. This is a horns 50 play as the big who doesn’t set the screen drops to the dunker spot and then steps out to the corner, putting the Bears in 50 spacing for a clear side ball-screen.
Northern Colorado is a weak defensive team that the Cougs should be able to score on consistently—Kenpom ranks them 272nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Bears are in the 17th percentile guarding spot-ups, the 1st percentile guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and the 5th percentile guarding post-ups, giving WSU plenty of areas to exploit them. Basically every play type with a high frequency of use, the Bears struggle to defend.
The Bears’ guards are really bad at screen navigation and that is part of what hurts their ball-handler defense. They struggle to get skinny over screens and they are constantly getting beat when going under. This can lead to a lot of good looks for capable guard shooters.
Northern Colorado is a fairly small team in the frontcourt. Their starting forwards are 6’9 and 6’6 and they aren’t particularly strong for their size. This leads to them doing a 2/3 high type defense in the post. This is where the defender sits on the hip farthest from the basket in the post and will try and get over to steal the ball if it is a bounce pass or they can get to a spot to steal it on a lob as well. This type of defense can give up some easy shots, but it does make post entries difficult if your team doesn’t have a guard that can pull it off.
The Bears also suffer from quite a bit of defensive miscommunication. They are consistently sending two to a guy they did not mean to or giving too much space for a perimeter player. Here, that doesn’t result in the shot it should for the opposing team, but the miscommunications can be exploited to get easy buckets.
Players to Watch:
Daylen Kountz is the Bears leading scorer and their go-to guy on offense. He is averaging 20 points per game on really nice shooting splits. He can shoot off the dribble going left or right and he gets to the rim really well too. He is a versatile scorer who can beat you in a lot of different ways. He also started his career in the Pac-12 with Colorado.
Bodie Hume is 6’6 but plays almost exclusively as a big. He can stretch you out with his shot if you are putting another big on him though. He is only shooting 31.8% from deep so far this year, but he is taking five attempts a game and he has a past track record as a very good shooter.
Matt Johnson II is the starting point guard for the Bears and he can do it all offensively. He leads the team in assists, is shooting well from deep on high volume, and he can even muck it up on the boards when he has to. Johnson II is an all-around player who makes a lot of stuff possible for Northern Colorado when he is out there.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Efe Abogidi cracked double digits in scoring against New Mexico State. This was the first time he reached double digits since the game against Idaho. The lack of offensive development from Abogidi has been one of the bigger disappointments of this early season. There were legitimate NBA expectations for Abogidi this season and he is yet to live up to those lofty goals. He is still all the bit of the elite defender he was last year, but he is looking to take the offensive leap. A shift in usage type could be a help for him, but some of the issues are going to be harder to fix. Cutting out post-ups, which have been hit or miss throughout the season, could help him out, but his optimal role as a pick-and-roll finisher is hard to accommodate with the lack of downhill guards on this roster.
DJ Rodman had a really tough night in the last game and he could use a big bounce back against Northern Colorado. A lot of Rodman’s offensive value comes from his spot-up shooting but he missed every shot from deep against NMSU and he is only shooting 26% on the year. The driving game has looked improved and he still brings value as an offensive rebounder and defender, but the jumper needs to fall for him to properly fulfill his role on the team.
Tyrell Roberts was sick during the last game against NMSU and he was desperately missed. Despite his struggles this season, he is very valuable as a tertiary ball-handler for the Cougs. Lineups without Michael Flowers or Roberts on the floor had to be played against the Aggies and it was definitely a struggle. Even though Noah Williams is more than capable as a ball-handler, WSU needs to run line-ups with multiple ball-handlers if they want to create any sort of efficient offense.
What to Watch For:
Stopping the scoring droughts is certainly a major focus for the Cougs going forward. The issue the Cougs have had is that they cannot generate easy looks. It feels like almost every time the Cougs score, it is a tough shot or a transition play. Getting easy shots in the half-court setting is a hard thing to scheme when you don’t have players that generate easy looks themselves. Transitioning Williams to the primary ball-handler because he could get to the rim easier is one strategy. Another could be buying into forcing more turnovers on defense and playing a bit more up-tempo. The one run the Cougs went on in the NMSU game was spurred by forcing turnovers and getting out in transition and WSU could benefit by doing that more often because they have the talent to do it.
Finding an identity has been a struggle so far this season. There is so much talent on this roster, but they are still young, inexperienced, and a bit mismatched at times. There is a lot of athleticism, but not a ton of great decision-makers, and teams with that make-up need a specific identity to buy into. Sometimes, it appears like that aggressive defensive could be that identity, but they have not fully bought into that so far this year.
The back of Noah Williams is probably getting sore at this point. The Cougs’ performances in close games ride so heavily on how Williams performs in big moments and the team only looks organized when he is on the floor. The Cougs need him to contribute at a high level night in and night out to succeed, but the Cougs also need to do a better job of alleviating his offensive load every night.
Question of the Ga me:
Will Kyle Smith start to shift the defensive scheme to try and force more turnovers?