The ninth-seeded Washington State Cougars will look for their first NCAA tournament win in program history when they face the eighth-seeded South Florida Bulls on Sunday night (6:30 pm PT, ESPN2). This is only the second time WSU has participated in March Madness and the first time since 1991. The Bulls are participating in the tournament for the seventh time and seeking to get to the second round for the fourth time.
WSU earned an at-large bid by way of big wins over UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon State. The Bulls grabbed the American Athletic Conference’s automatic bid, but they likely would have been invited to the Big Dance anyway.
Let’s look at the key players and trends that will impact the NCAA tournament first-round matchup between the Cougs and Bulls.
Note: The numbers used in this preview came from Her Hoop Stats. I highly recommend dropping $20 on a yearly subscription if you want keep up with Kamie Ethridge’s Cougs.
When South Florida has the ball...
Jose Hernandez’s USF squad doesn’t shoot the ball well in aggregate. The Bulls hit just under 42 percent of their 2-pointers and 30 percent of their 3-pointers. However, South Florida makes up for that by dominating shot volume.
USF is an aggressive offensive rebounding squad. The Bulls have grabbed 40.5 percent of their own misses, good for 11th nationally. This effort is largely led by 6’0 Bethy Mununga and 6’2 Shae Leverett, who grab 14.2 percent and 13 percent of their teammates’ misses while they are on the floor, respectively.
That poses a challenge for WSU, which has been a below-average defensive rebounding team this season. The Cougs grab 67.7 percent of opponent misses. One caveat is that those numbers came against many larger Pac-12 frontlines, so it will be interesting to see how WSU’s rebounding stands up against a shorter USF frontcourt.
South Florida also maximizes shot volume by limiting turnovers, where it ranks 59th in turnover rate, giving it away on less than 17 percent of possessions. It helps that USF’s two highest-volume shooters—Elena Tsineke and Sydni Harvey—are stingy with the basketball.
The Cougs don’t rely heavily on forcing turnovers to stop teams, but stealing the ball is key for WSU to set up easy offense. The Bulls are above average in avoiding steals, so it will be interesting to see if the Cougar guards can still cause the same havoc level.
When USF is getting extra possessions through offensive rebounds and avoiding turnovers, nearly one-third of those are being used by Tsineke when she is on the floor. The sophomore guard is an effective shooter in the midrange and will also step out and knock down 3s. Conversely, Harvey is a much better 3-point shooter than a 2-point shooter and takes most of her shots from beyond the arc.
Elisa Pinzan sets up the offense at point guard, and she assists on an impressive 42.5 percent of her teammates’ baskets while she is on the floor. That’s part of a team-wide 70.8 assist rate on made baskets, sixth-most nationally. Pinzan isn’t an efficient shooter herself, but expect to see her take nearly half of her shots from 3-point range.
The Bulls are a 3-point heavy offense generally, taking 3-pointers on 36 percent of their shots (36th-most nationally). That’s more than the Cougs typically allow (27 percent), and WSU is just 261st in 3-point percentage allowed.
For WSU to limit South Florida, it will need to stop penetration and cut off passing lanes for Pinzan. She opens up USF’s offense and sets up her teammates with open looks. The Cougs will also need to be stronger on the defense glass—if Bella Murekatete and Ula Motuga can cut down on the number of USF offensive boards, that will cut down a major part of the Bulls’ offense.
When WSU has the ball...
Much like USF, the Cougs haven’t been a good shooting team, but they have been slightly more successful than the Bulls—hitting 42 percent of their 2s and 33 percent of their 3s. WSU also relies on 3-pointers at an above-average clip, shooting from long range at the 69th-highest rate nationally.
South Florida’s strength is shooting defense. The Bulls are 21st-best defending on 2-point pointers, allowing 38 percent. USF allows teams to make just 24 percent on 3s and also makes it difficult for teams to even get a look from 3—allowing the 8th-lowest rate of 3-point attempts per field goal attempt.
The Cougs are middle of the road overall turning the ball over, and South Florida is middle of the road overall forcing turnovers. WSU has been inconsistent in this area and struggled mightily giving the ball away its last time out. Point guard Krystal Leger-Walker is the key here—she can be turnover prone in bunches. She seems to have improved in that area after a tough stretch of games, so WSU will be hoping that continues against a USF defense that isn’t focused on taking the ball away as much as it focuses on forcing contested looks.
Krystal is at her best when she avoids turnovers and makes crisp passes to open shooters—and WSU is at its best when it is moving the ball. The Cougs are 52nd in assist rate, with 61 percent of their baskets coming via an assist.
The Cougs have been better than average on the offensive glass, grabbing a third of their own misses. South Florida is a good defensive rebounding squad, but this could be an area for WSU to exploit. Both Murekatete and her backup Emma Nankervis will have significant height advantages on the inside, and that may allow them to get their hands on a few extra offensive boards.
Beyond the team tendencies and trends, WSU has the one factor that could swing things wildly in their favor—Charlisse Leger-Walker. The freshman has the ability to take over games offensively and has led WSU to wins in big moments with huge scoring games. She can hit from long range, avoid turnovers, penetrate and create for teammates, and has the strength to finish inside through contact. She’s a difficult guard one-on-one, and South Florida will no doubt be looking to shut her down.
Many teams have been trying that lately, and that has meant more open looks for Johanna Teder. She is a good 3-point shooter that can be streaky. Knocking down her open looks would be huge for WSU in cracking USF’s defense.
USF can’t ignore Motuga, either. She’s a selective but effective 3-point shooter and is crafty around the basket. Motuga has had some big games, and she won’t be facing the size that she typically sees in the Pac-12.
To be successful on offense, the Cougs will need to cut down turnovers and utilize their size advantage through post-ups, pick-and-rolls, and offensive rebounds. Open 3-pointers may be hard to come by, so knocking down those that are available will be key. Finally, a big game from Charlisse would certainly help, of course.
The Bottom Line
USF looks like it comes out much better on the balance when looking at the tempo-free stats. However, it’s important to remember that these numbers are not adjusted for competition; they merely tell a story of tendencies.
WSU has faced a much more difficult set of opponents this season, which provides some explanation in any perceived advantage for South Florida based on the raw tempo-free statistics. That doesn’t explain it all—USF was still excellent relative to its opponents, and the Bulls are a very good team. However, the Cougs are likely to be a much better team than South Florida plays on average.
The shot volume totals will tell a major story. WSU needs to hold USF below its typical rebounding percentages on the offensive end, and it would benefit greatly from overperforming its own offensive rebounding percentages.
Likewise, the Cougs can’t give the ball away too much, as they’ve been prone to do in some games. USF isn’t a turnover-heavy team, so the Cougs shouldn’t expect the Bulls to return the favor in giving it away.
Of the shot volume that does go up, a big portion will be 3s, and the team that wins the 3-point lottery will have a distinct advantage. This may be where rest plays a factor for the Cougs. Charlisse and Krystal Leger-Walker were both clearly worn down at the season’s end, affecting their ability to shoot from long range.
They’ve now gone two-and-a-half weeks without a game, and that will hopefully provide some lighter legs. Will those lighter legs lead to better shooting percentages? If so, then the Cougs will have a good shot at getting their first tournament win.