The Washington State Cougars aim for an improbable weekend sweep when they take on the USC Trojans in Pullman on Saturday evening (5 pm PT, ESPNU). The Cougs helped out USC in its quest for the regular-season Pac-12 title by beating second-place UCLA on Thursday.
The Trojans used a hot start to fend off a 50-point WSU second half in an 85-77 win last month. Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. USC rematch.
When USC has the ball...
USC is big, and it uses that size—the second-tallest team in the country according to KenPom—to impose its will on opponents. The Trojans feature the best offensive rebounding percentage in Pac-12 play, the second-best free throw rate, the third-best 2-point percentage, and the Trojans get blocked on 2-point attempts at the second-lowest rate. Andy Enfield’s squad has converted on 63 percent of opportunities at the rim across all games.
Freshman one-and-done Evan Mobley leads that interior attack. He’s a skilled 7-footer that has hit more than three-quarters of his shots at the rim, frequently using a series of NBA-quality moves to get himself clear or draw fouls. He’s also an adept offensive rebounder and leads USC with 18 put-backs on the year. WSU has more size than most teams down low, but Mobley is a matchup problem for any team and might be a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
Adding to the challenge is Isaiah Mobley, Evan’s 6’10 older brother, who also attacks the offensive glass and draws fouls but doesn’t score as efficiently as the younger Mobley. Chevez Goodwin comes off the bench, and he too will be relentless attacking his own team’s misses while finishing at a better clip than Isaiah Mobley. Fouling either Isaiah or Goodwin to prevent easy buckets would not be the worst strategy—both are poor free throw shooters.
Beyond the bigs, USC also comes at teams with a balanced scoring attack from the guards and wings. Tahj Eaddy is a specialist in the mid-range, using pull-ups and floaters to hit an excellent 57 percent on 2-point jumpers. He’s also a threat to hit 3-pointers, making him a tough guard. Ethan Anderson will back Eaddy up off the bench, and he’s a dangerous 3-point shooter.
The Trojans use 6’8 Drew Peterson and 6’7 Isaiah White at the two and three positions. Peterson is more perimeter-oriented, while White can get to the rim. Max Agbonkpolo and Noah Baumann will also log significant minutes—Agbonkpolo profiles similar to White but has struggled with his shot this season. Baumann is almost all jump shots—less than 2 percent of his attempts have come at the rim.
USC’s size caused issues for WSU last time, as the Trojans hit 26 of 50 on 2-pointers and pulled down 37 percent of their own misses. The Cougs have the size to neutralize the Trojans more than most teams, but that meant holding them to just about their Pac-12 averages.
To be successful, WSU will hope USC turns the ball over more after just eight total (less than 11 percent of possessions) last game. A slight tick up in defensive rebounding percentage for WSU and a slight tick down in 2-point percentage for USC could also be enough to keep the Trojans within striking distance.
When WSU has the ball...
Given USC’s defensive capabilities, one could argue that WSU’s 1.03 points per possession against the Trojans last time out was its best offensive performance of the season. That was largely fueled by a huge day from Isaac Bonton—27 points on 21 shots. Bonton has done that frequently lately, and WSU will need it again.
It’s typically tough to score on USC’s interior defense. The Trojans lead the Pac-12 in block percentage and 2-point field goal percentage allowed. For the whole season, USC is 14th nationally in field percentage against at the rim. Surprisingly, WSU bucked these trends in the first matchup—hitting 59 percent of 2-points, including 9 of 12 on 2s combined from Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson.
Can WSU do that again? While the Cougs does have size, it seems unlikely. Wazzu is dead last nationally in field goal percentage at the rim, making its last performance against Southern Cal seem like more of an aberration than a trend.
If WSU can’t shoot 2s the same way against USC, they will need a superlative performance from 3-point range. The Trojans have allowed the lowest 3-point percentage in the conference, which USC’s size may impact on the wings. However, 3-pointers are a lottery, and it’s tough to predict when a team is gonna cash in from deep.
The Bottom Line
USC is a bad matchup overall for WSU because it counteracts much of what Kyle Smith’s squad does well. However, the Cougs are in better shape than they were last time these two teams met, with Ryan Rapp and DJ Rodman back in the rotation.
A shorthanded Coug team put up a surprising fight against the Trojans last time, so there is proof that WSU can hang, and even do well in unexpected areas. But for WSU to turn what was an 85-77 loss that time into a win, it's going to have to shoot well from deep, rebound better on the offensive glass, and pressure better overall on defense.
KenPom predicts USC to win 78 percent of simulations with an average score of 69-61. The Cougs beat the KenPom prediction by 13 points on Thursday—can they do the same and win today?