The Washington State Cougars will try to shake off a disappointing loss when they host the California Golden Bears on Thursday (7:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). WSU fell at home to its rival on Monday, while Cal got a surprising win over Colorado in its last game.
Cal seems to be trending positively, and it would seem that WSU will be without Isaac Bonton again. This makes what was once projected to be an easy win for the Cougs much tougher.
Let’s look at the key players and trends that will impact WSU vs. Cal.
When Cal has the ball...
No player in the conference takes a higher percentage of his team’s shots when he is on the floor than Matt Bradley, and he also uses possessions at the second-highest rate in league play. WSU was fortunate to face Cal without Bradley the first time these two teams met, and his effectiveness has fueled a recent stretch of better play for the Golden Bears.
Bradley is a deadly three-point shooter (39 percent), and he does take just over 40 percent of his attempts from deep. However, the 6’4 wing is much more than his outside stroke. He can put the ball on the deck and get to the rim, where he draws fouls or finishes at a good percentage (57 percent at the rim). If he stops for a runner or pull-up jumper, he hits those at a respectable 48 percent. Bradley fills it up from anywhere, and he is the engine behind any Cal success.
WSU struggled in defending perimeter players against UW, and if that happens again, Bradley could have a huge day.
Outside of Bradley, Ryan Betley is the next most likely to put up a shot. He is not a diverse scorer, taking more than two-thirds of his shots from behind the arc. Makale Foreman is in a similar style off the bench, and he has shot well from deep in conference play (37 percent). Freshman Jalen Celestine has recently moved into the starting lineup after minimal playing time throughout the season and is also a potential knockdown 3-point shooter who heavily favors the perimeter jumper.
Joel Brown is the distributor but does tend turnovers. When he keeps the ball, he has been a solid shooter—except at the free throw line where he is making just 47 percent.
Andre Kelly is the big body in the frontcourt. He rarely ventures out beyond the arc but is comfortable in the midrange and is the most likely candidate to search for offensive rebounds. 7-footer Lars Thiemann frequently backs him up, but the big man has seen his numbers and opportunities decrease significantly recently. That could be a product of matchups—he did play 17 minutes against WSU last time.
Grant Anticevich provides some matchup challenges at the power forward spot. He’s shooting 40 percent on 3s. Anticevich isn’t a consistent scorer, but he has the potential to get hot for spurts.
Overall—as you can gather by the number of perimeter-oriented players on the roster, Cal is going to lean on 3-pointers. The Golden Bears have taken 3s on 43 percent of their field goal attempts in Pac-12 play, most in the league. If those 3s are falling, Cal can be dangerous.
Cal isn’t a good offensive rebounding team, so WSU needs to clean up the misses that do happen, and forcing Brown in particular into turnovers would be helpful.
Slowing down Bradley is key. He’s not a big assist guy, so putting him into tough positions may lead to a tough shot instead of a dish to an open shooter. Be warned—he does make tough shots.
When WSU has the ball...
Without Bonton against Washington, the WSU offense went from bad to worse when turning the ball over. That has been an issue all season and was magnified when the Cougs lost their primary ballhandler. However, that was mostly an issue in the first half, and Cal doesn’t typically force many turnovers—so maybe the Cougs can go back to its normal amount of too many turnovers instead of the absurd amount.
While WSU has struggled overall inside—the Cougs are second-to-last nationally in field goal percentage at the rim, they have shown the ability to exploit teams for easy points with Dishon Jackson in the post. As Cal has the worst 2-point field goal percentage defense in the conference while often running smaller lineups, that may work again.
Still, Jackson won’t simply power through Kelly, who is a stout 6’8, 255. What the Cougs really need in this one, likely without Bonton, is better guard play than it had against Washington. Noah Williams and Ryan Rapp need to be more efficient.
There are many role players that could step up for WSU—maybe a guy like Jaz Kunc will continue his hot stretch, or DJ Rodman will find his stroke again. The Cougs likely need a few of those things to happen without Bonton around. Perhaps Efe Abogidi can have some success inside as well.
And back to the turnovers—taking care of the ball is extremely important against Cal because the Golden Bears will give teams open shots. They are not only the worst 2-point defense in the league but also the worst 3-point defense. WSU should find open looks if it holds onto possession, and the Cougs need someone to step up and bury those.
The Bottom Line
WSU saw one dominant performance from an opposing player sinks its chances against Washington, and it doesn’t have that potential for its own high usage guy to go off and put up points in bunches without Bonton. Cal has that guy in Bradley, someone who it didn’t have last time these two teams met.
KenPom’s laptop, as always, doesn’t factor in which players are available and predicts WSU to win 65 percent of simulations with an average score of 67-63. The reality here is that the game feels more like a 50-50 proposition with Bonton out.
To come out victorious, the Cougs need better guard play both offensively and defensively—particularly against Bradley on the latter. WSU also needs to find some easy buckets inside and make open shots when they are available. A high turnover game could doom them, so hopefully, Kyle Smith’s push-up and sit-up strategy has had an impact.