The Washington State Cougars are looking for revenge, basketball style, when they face the Arizona Wildcats in Tuscon on Thursday night (8 pm PT, FS1). Arizona outlasted a shorthanded WSU squad in double overtime on Jan. 2.
The Cougs were without Volodymyr Markovetskyy, Ryan Rapp, and DJ Rodman in that early-season matchup. They will have Markovetskyy and Rodman back tonight. However, Rapp and leading scorer Isaac Bonton's statuses are still up in the air—although Theo Lawson did report that both were expected to travel with the team to Arizona.
With the grain of salt that Rapp and Bonton may or may not play, let’s look at the players and trends that might impact the Cougs vs. Wildcats.
When Arizona has the ball...
Sean Miller’s squad is one of the tallest in the country—and the Wildcats use that to their advantage on offense. Arizona is a great offensive rebounding team—it ranks second in Pac-12 play in offensive rebounding percentage and 20th nationally—and elite at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. The Wildcats lead the conference and rank fifth nationally in free throw rate—shooting about 40 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts.
That ability to draw fouls was an issue for Washington State’s frontline last time out. Dishon Jackson was limited to just 15 minutes due to foul trouble, while Efe Abogidi played only 28 minutes of the total 50 available.
When the Cougs had Jackson and Abogidi on the floor, they defended well against Arizona’s tall front. Azuolas Tubelis was held under his typical production and efficiency, logging many of his points after Abogidi fouled out, while 6’11 Jordan Brown and 7’1 Christian Koloko both struggled to score all game.
Instead, it was Arizona’s guards and wings that gave WSU trouble. Freshman Bennedict Mathurin scored what was then a career-high 24 points on 7 of 10 shooting. He presents a challenge as an athletic 6’7 wing that is just as comfortable going to the basket as taking a 3-pointer. When Mathurin sits, he’ll be spelled by fellow freshman Dalen Terry, who profiles similarly but doesn’t make shots at the same rate.
James Akinjo drives the offense as the assist man and a capable scorer off the dribble. He is a good 3-point shooter and can draw contact and knock down free throws. It’s best to force him off his spot and into midrange shots, where he is not nearly as effective.
Joining Akinjo in the backcourt is freshman Kerr Kriisa, who has started the last four games after missing most of the season with an injury. Kriisa has taken 31 shots, and 29 have come from beyond the arc. He only wants to shoot 3s.
Backing up both guard positions is Terrell Brown, whose most preferred shot is off the dribble in the midrange. Brown does knock down 3s when left open and is another player that is good at drawing contact.
WSU has been an excellent defensive rebounding team as of late and was able to cobble together a solid defensive rebounding effort against Arizona last time out. Cutting out second chances will be key, as will defending dribble penetration if the Wildcats can get in the lane, which puts Wazzu’s bigs at risk for foul trouble.
If they can’t do that, having Markovetskyy back with five more fouls will certainly help.
When WSU has the ball...
It should come as no surprise that Arizona’s biggest strength defensively is rebounding. The Wildcats are second in Pac-12 play in defensive rebounding percentage. They also have two capable shot-blockers in Brown and Koloko. Outside of those two factors, there are areas to exploit.
Despite Arizona’s size, it doesn’t defend the paint particularly well overall. The Wildcats allow 61% at the rim—237th nationally. Can WSU take advantage of that? Maybe, but this is your reminder that the Cougs are among the worst teams in the country when it comes to finishing at the rim.
However, WSU’s inability to make layups shouldn’t dissuade it from attacking the basket. Arizona is below average in allowing free throw attempts,
The Wildcats also don’t force many turnovers—the Cougs were able to avoid a high number of turnovers against Cal last weekend, but overall have typically been pretty loose with the ball. Arizona isn’t going to pressure much, and they allow the highest assist rate in the conference, so it’s important to be crisp and clean with the passes—those passes will find open shooters.
Having more options certainly would help—Bonton has been good at finishing at the rim in Pac-12 play and kept the Cougs in it with his scoring in the second half. Noah Williams was spectacular last weekend, but his newfound role as a go-to-guy combined with Bonton would make life hard for Arizona’s defense.
But if Bonton doesn’t play, WSU will need another big game from Williams along with some aggressive interior play and hopefully fewer turnovers than they typically tally.
The Bottom Line
Arizona has a high ceiling when it plays well, but WSU has a roster that can match its size. Both teams will try to assert themselves on the glass, and whoever is best at limiting second chances will have an advantage.
WSU can find open shots against the Wildcats, but it needs to ensure it has the shot volume necessary to do well. That means fewer turnovers, and that means breaking through Arizona’s rebounding wall more than is typically allowed by Miller’s team.
The Cougs have played well recently—WSU ranks 56th over the last 10 games in Bart Torvik’s Pythagorean rankings, compared to 42nd for Arizona. If those both hold to form, this could be a closer game than the overall expectation on KenPom—an average score of 73-65, with Arizona winning 77 percent of simulations.