The Washington State Cougars are coming off of a fairly successful Rocky Mountain road trip despite only winning one of two. The Cougs’ offense looked very solid, and they were likely a healthy Noah Williams away from sweeping the one of the toughest road series in the Pac-12. A lot of the Cougs’ key players had their best games of the year, and WSU looked like a truly formidable force at times. They return home for a fun set against Stanford and Cal that should test the ceiling of this team.
The first of the two games is against Stanford on Thursday, tipping off at 2 p.m. PT on ESPNU for the rare matinee game.
Stanford is coming off a huge upset win over No. 5 USC on Tuesday and they look to ride that momentum into the Palouse. The Cardinal are 9-4 on the season and they are on a three-game winning streak with close wins against Wyoming, Liberty, and USC making up the streak. They did have an almost 20-day break between the Liberty and USC games so coming out of that break with a major upset is impressive. Stanford’s roster is the 4th tallest in terms of average height according to KenPom, and having skilled players with height is their greatest strength. They should be a fun matchup for the Cougs and a good challenge at home.
The Stanford offense is solid, but it is far from great. They are ranked in the top 90 in the country according to KenPom, but they are definitely buoyed by excellent offensive rebounding numbers that could falter a bit in conference play. They play a lot in the half-court and they are comfortable taking their time to get into sets. They like to move the ball and find the best possible shot rather than forcing tough shots.
Stanford runs a lot of empty side pick-and-roll and they have guards and bigs who can pass out of these situations. Here, Noah Taitz rejects the screen, gets right to the rim, and makes a great pass. Stanford is almost always willing to make the extra pass as well, creating an easy corner three.
These drag screens are often set up with 5-out spacing, also known as 50 sets. Here, the big gets the ball up top, the player on the wing sets a pin down for the guard who gets the pass and then runs the pick-and-roll. The spacing here is solid and Michael O’Connell makes the right play, but Stanford does lack some athleticism and it shows up when they try to finish at the rim.
The Cardinal also run a lot of pistol actions. These can be set-up with dribble hand-offs like this, but they often also pass from the top and burn cut or get a hand-off back to the initiating guard. Either way, they run these into tight pick-and-rolls, 50 sets, or post-ups down low. Either way, they use pistol to accomplish the spacing the want and get the ball into the hands of their playmakers.
Stanford runs quite a few specific plays that limit the looks, rather than broader sets that have multiple reads and possibilities. These can be to get movement shooters shots or cutters shots right at the rim. Here, they run a variation of the Spain pick-and-roll. Spain pick-and-rolls are generally run where a big sets a normal screen for the ball-handler and a shooter screens the player guarding the roll-man and then pops to three. Here, it is run as a dribble hand-off where the shooter hands off to the guard and the big screens for the shooter before rolling.
The other major thing the Cardinal like to do is run some post-ups for players like Harrison Ingram and Jaden Delaire. These are big wings who are comfortable with the ball in their hand and are able to make plays. They can score and facilitate with a spaced floor when in these situations.
Thus far this season, Stanford is a statistically sound defense, but there are some holes. They are ranked top 80 nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to KenPom, but through three conference games, they are 9th in the Pac-12 by the conference-only defensive efficiency. According to Synergy, they are really poor at guarding spot-ups and in transition (14th percentile and 13th percentile respectively). They also allow a lot of fastbreak possessions in general. Transition shots make up 14% of Stanford’s opponents offense (Synergy) and they rank 113th in overall tempo despite ranking 284th in average length of possession on offense (KenPom). They guard the pick-and-roll all right and they guard really well in the post, but there are a lot of holes in the Cardinal defense.
This is a great look at the general principles at play with the Stanford defense. Colorado runs a north screen to get a high pick-and-roll look. The Stanford guard chases over the screen and the big catches above the three-point line. The pocket pass is made to the big, but it is far enough out that the big cannot do much with it and Harrison Ingram stops him from being able to drive. The big recovers back and Ingram steps back out to his man. They then guard the big straight up and force him into a tough hook shot.
While they Cardinal don’t usually double in the post, they will dig really hard and help on the back side. Here, Max Agbonkpolo keeps his handle and puts up a good shot, but Spencer Bones did dig hard and it could have created a turnover or a tougher shot for the offense.
The Cardinal do attempt to plug the lane quite often, giving space to non, or even slightly below average, shooters. It increases their rim protection and forces teams to makes shots from outside, but it has its drawbacks too. Here, USC runs a strongside play that puts the defending big in an odd position. The big is in position to ice a ball-screen for Boogie Ellis and O’Connell is sitting low to plug a passing lane. This leads to a miscommunication and a really easy driving lane for the Trojans.
Due to Stanford’s high catching system, they can often get beat by a screen rejection if the guard is sped up. Here, the big guarding the screener sets up to catch above the break, but O’Connell does not force the guard to use the screen and the Colorado guard gets downhill with ease. Delaire is there to clean everything up, but a man is left open in the corner and the defense did still break down.
Finally, Stanford will occasionally zone up in specific situations. This is after a timeout and during a game where USC was not shooting very well from three. It is a pretty soft zone, but it is meant to give teams a different look and mix them up for a possession or two.
Players to Watch:
Harrison Ingram is definitely the best NBA prospect on Stanford’s roster and for good reason. The true freshman is averaging 12 points, 7 boards, and 3 assists a game while being a 6-foot-8 tank of a human being. Ingram can mix it up down low in the post, but he also plays as the point guard quite often for the Cardinal, running pick-and-rolls and initiating from above the break. His skill level is rare for his height and he is always a big game candidate.
Spencer Jones is a 6-7 wing who made his bones as a shooter his freshman season, but has failed to recapture that efficiency from deep. He relies a lot on shooting, which is worrying considering he is shooting only 31% from deep this season. Still, he provides a lot of value defensively and he could have a huge game from deep at any moment.
Jaden Delaire is the go-to play finisher for the Cardinal. Stanford is a deep team that goes to a lot of different players for offense, but in a pinch they like to get Delaire going downhill. They get him involved as roll-man or as a slashing wing. He is an elite finisher who can get above the rim or finish with craft below it.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers had a really solid game against Utah and he has started to grow into the role of lead decision maker for the Cougs. He had six assists in the game against Utah and he ran a few great pick-and-rolls with Mouhamed Gueye. He is still not generating any rim pressure, but he has started turning the corner, getting to about the free throw line, and leveraging his jump-shot to open up passing windows to the big. His overall efficiency is generally a marvel, but the change from small shooting guard to true point guard is huge for the Cougs. The offense sang when Flowers was distributing and the Cougs desperately need him to continue playing that role at a high level.
Efe Abogidi was such a blast to watch in the last two games and it was a reminder of just how dominant he can be. While he didn’t record a block, he affected a lot of shots at the rim and had three total steals. Against Colorado, he scored 16 points shooting 100% from the field. He was a much better decision maker as well, getting three assists to no turnovers over the two-game stretch. The most important aspect was simply how healthy he looked though. He was bouncy again, getting off the floor with ease and outrunning opposing bigs. He will be huge defensively against the size of Stanford and he could be a deadly roll threat once again if the improvements of Flowers stick.
Tyrell Roberts is perhaps the most impressive revelation to come out of the Mountain series. He looked like someone who belonged in the Pac-12, which is huge for the Cougs. He was turning the corner and getting downhill consistently, making tough shots, and acting as the pressure release valve for the WSU offense. The efficiency was not incredible, but it doesn’t need to be. It was clear the other team was respecting him as a scorer, and it opened up the floor for other to excel as well as Roberts himself.
Andrej Jakimovski has been a really solid role player for the Cougs overall. Jakimovski’s season has sadly been defined by the Baylor Scheierman ankle breaking, game winning shot over him, but he has been the best shooter on the team, a solid passer, a great rebounder, and a surprisingly solid defender. His help defense has been particularly solid (77th percentile as the tagger when guarding pick-and-roll according to Synergy and 64th percentile when guarding spot-ups). Anyone who is 6-8 and shooting 47.1% from deep is valuable, but he does a lot of other good things that go overlooked.
What to Watch For:
The pick-and-roll looked like a real weapon for the Cougs against Colorado and Utah rather than the limp play it looked like in so many of WSU’s disappointing losses. Flowers and Roberts have started turning the corner and putting opposing bigs in difficult situations. This allowed for Gueye to have his best game of the year against Utah and it will also make Abogidi’s life much easier going forward. The Cougs’ bigs finish the pick-and-roll in the 97th percentile in the country, but their volume thus far has been low (3% of the Cougs possessions, per Synergy). Increasing that volume and allowing these elite play-finishing bigs to have a bigger impact on the game would be a huge boost for the Cougs’ offense.
The shooting is really fun, but can the Cougs sustain it? The Cougs shot 40% from three against Utah, taking 30 total shots from deep. However, they shot only 26.9% from deep on 26 threes in the game against Colorado. These are equally outlier occurrences from deep, but the Cougs have been consistently inconsistent from deep this year. They rely a lot on shooting from deep as way to derive offense, but they don’t always fall game to game. The Cougs likely rely on deep-range to score against Stanford too and it will be interesting to see if they can start to find some consistency from deep.
The defense looks elite once again and it is awesome to see. The Cougs are top 30 overall in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to KenPom and, through four conference games, they rank first in the Pac-12. They protect the rim at an elite level, force turnovers, and they force misses from deep at a solid rate. This could potentially remain the best defense in the Pac-12 and Stanford will be a solid test for just how impressive they can be.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs win the battle on the boards?