The Washington State Cougars will play the first of two games to end the regular season against the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe on Saturday night (6 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The two teams were scheduled to play earlier this season, but it was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols in Arizona State’s program. Now, they meet with Pac-12 Tournament seeding on the line.
If the tournament started today, WSU would be the 8th seed and play the 9th seed Utah Utes in the first round (remember that Arizona is not participating this year). The Cougs can rise to as high as the 6th seed but only fall as low as the 9th seed. Landing in 6th or 7th would mean a first-round matchup with Cal or Washington—the two worst teams in the conference by a large margin (that UW loss continues to be frustrating).
Arizona State still has an outside shot at a first-round bye if it can win its last four games (yes, they have two more after these two with WSU), and Stanford loses out. The Sun Devils can also drop as low as the 9th seed.
With relevant teams in the seeding scenarios still playing between two and four games, it’s tough to lay out all the possibilities here. However, it’s interesting to note that there are multiple scenarios in which WSU and ASU play again for a third time in less than two weeks in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
With those admittedly low stakes laid out, let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Sun Devils.
When ASU has the ball...
Remy Martin has been at Arizona State forever, and he’ll be the most dangerous player on the floor for the Sun Devils. He’ shoots the plurality of his shots from beyond the arc, where he hits a capable 36 percent, but his quickness on the drive is what makes him tough to guard.
When Martin gets inside, he shoots 63 percent at the rim. That would be good at any height, but it is remarkable from his 6’0 frame. He’s also adept at drawing fouls—he draws the 39th most in the country per 40 minutes. And while Martin takes 29 percent of his team's shots while on the floor, he’s also keen to make a play for others—he boasts the sixth-highest assist rate in Pac-12 play.
Containing Martin is important, but no team has really been capable of shutting him down. He’s posted offensive ratings of 104 or more in 10 of his 12 Pac-12 games. If he doesn’t shoot well, he finds points at the free throw line, and he doesn’t turn the ball over often.
When Martin isn’t taking the shots, his backcourt mate Alonzo Verge will also be putting pressure on the defense through penetration and a varied offensive attack. However, he’s not nearly as efficient as Martin and given a choice; the defense would rather see Verge with the ball in his hands.
Arizona State typically plays three guards, and Holland Woods has taken over a starting role in the absence of 5-star freshman Josh Christopher, who has missed the last five games nursing a back injury. Woods is primarily going to seek his shot from beyond the arc and is a much more passive offensive player compared to Christopher.
The Sun Devils have also been without another key freshman—Marcus Bagley—for the past six games. It’s unclear whether either Bagley or Christopher will play against the Cougs, but both or even one would make ASU a more potent offense.
Bobby Hurley’s squad typically goes pretty small in the frontcourt, even going with four guards by inserting Jaelen House into the mix (who missed the last game against Washington). The two bigs that primarily play are 6’8 Kimani Lawrence and 6’9 Jalen Graham.
Lawrence does most of his work around the basket, and two-thirds of his makes at the rim come off assists. He definitely benefits from ASU’s attacking guards. Graham is making an impressive 84 percent on shots at the rim and is also the beneficiary of many assisted buckets. He’s more likely to venture out for a jumper, though.
Chris Osten backs up the frontcourt spots, and he profiles similarly but has been even more reliant on setups from the guards to make his shots.
This all underscores the importance of at least slowing Martin and Verge down on the drive. They are both very good at making teams pay for help defense.
Overall, the Sun Devils don’t shoot well, and they don’t grab many offensive rebounds, but they live off taking care of the basketball (7th nationally in turnover percentage and first in Pac-12 play) and getting to the free throw line. There’s something to be said for controlled aggression and shot volume.
The Cougs needs to dominate the defensive glass, much in the way it did against Stanford, and turn ASU’s lack of offensive rebounds into a debilitating weakness. Otherwise, guard defense is going to be paramount.
When WSU has the ball...
Arizona State values taking the ball away nearly as much as it values avoiding turnovers. The Sun Devils are second in conference play in turnover percentage allowed and 64th nationally. Up against a WSU squad prone to giveaways, that could be a real advantage for ASU.
A high number of those turnovers come from steals, so WSU needs to be extra careful on the dribble and in making tough passes. Live ball turnovers can be killer against a quick ASU team going the other way.
The Sun Devils don’t do anything else particularly well on defense. Teams shoot pretty well typically, and ASU struggles on the defensive glass. The aggressive nature of Arizona State’s defense also leads to a high number of free throws allowed.
If WSU can take care of the ball, there will be opportunities for open shots. Making those shots matters, but the Cougs have a good chance to grab offensive rebounds at a high rate, so the shot going up in the first place matters even more.
The Bottom Line
Arizona State tries to beat teams by winning the turnover battle by having as many as four ballhandlers on the court at once and playing an aggressive defensive style that leads to shorter possessions.
KenPom predicts ASU to win 60 percent of simulations by an average score of 74-71. WSU is almost certainly going to turn the ball over more than Arizona State, and probably by a wide margin. To neutralize that impact, the Cougs need to own the glass on both ends of the floor. That’s how they can make up some of the shot volume deficit that turnovers will create, and that’s how Kyle Smith’s squad can win.