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NCAA Basketball: California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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What to Watch For: Scouting WSU vs. Cal

Can the Cougs bounce back against the Golden Bears?

The Washington State Cougars are coming off of yet another disappointing second half performance that resulted in a loss to the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday. Many point to intangible things like lack of strength or leadership, while others would point to the lack of advantage creation present on the offense to make the scoring droughts more bearable.

Either way, the Cougs look to bounce back against a surprisingly solid Cal team. Today’s game will tip off at 1 p.m. from Beasley Coliseum with the broadcast carried on Pac-12 Network and Pac-12.com (with a cable subscription).

Cal is on the heels of a three-game losing streak, including a 9-point loss to Washington. However, they are much better than might be expected from the recently poor Golden Bears. They have bought into a system based around controlling the pace and winning the ugly way. They are 328th in the country in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom, and they take almost 20 seconds per play to shoot on offense (344th). Those numbers match the tape, where they rarely run and are willing to let offensive possessions go until the final seconds of the shot clock. Their grind-it-out style will present a unique challenge for the struggling Cougs.

Cal Golden Bears

Offense:

The Golden Bears are a very patient and deliberate offense, but not an overly effective one. They rank 184th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom and this is mostly due to their lack of consistent offensive talent — most of the Bears’ roster is made up of defense-first players and Cal runs a classic Princeton offense.

They are one of the few teams with a shot type with a higher frequency than spot-ups according to Synergy; pick-and-roll ball-handler. They are in the 13th percentile in these shot types, but they make up 21.5% of their plays. This points to their lack of passing and how many late shot-clock situations they find themselves in. They also rank in the 68th percentile in spot-up shots and the 94th percentile in post-ups, giving them some avenues for solid offense.

Cal plays pretty consistently out of Princeton and this is a good look at that. Here, they run a chin set, where the big gets the ball in the high post and looks to playmake out of that. They then run a dribble hand-off that does not go anywhere and the ball swings around. Cal is willing to wait for their offensive plays to develop and they show that off here, eventually ending the play with a staggered ball-screen.

This play is another example of just how patient they are willing to be, even if there is not really a particular purpose to it. The Bears move the ball around the perimeter a lot, not running any ball screens or any sort of complex off-ball play. Instead, they are trying to either get a post entry or create a lane for a straight line drive. Eventually, Grant Anticevich gets a step to create a window for a pass to the post. This patience can really lull teams to sleep and lead to really poor mistakes, especially if the team is down.

Cal’s go-to guy in the post is Andre Kelly, but they will let most of their players play in the post if they get an advantage. However, if it is not Kelly in the post, he is bound to be cutting around to try and get into offensive rebound position or to receive another pass in the post.

Cal really struggles to effectively space the floor and it can really hurt their offensive sets. Here, they attempt to run a high pistol play into a middle ball-screen, but the opposing team can plug driving lanes without worrying about getting beat by shooters.

Cal’s offense also lacks quick processing and decision making. There were about four pretty easy kickouts made on this play, but instead, a simple dig leads to a turnover. This is a problem for their post-players, but they have guards who struggle in this aspect as well and end up shooting tough shots they don’t need to.

Defense:

The Bears are a really solid overall defense, as they rank 56th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. They mostly succeed with packing the paint, limiting transition, and controlling the boards.

They allow teams to shoot with space from deep, as they rank in the 30th percentile guarding spot-ups and the 25th percentile guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handler. They have solid size at the guard position, but they don’t have elite rim-protection and they are always willing to let shooters shoot. They are a very solid defense overall, but they have issues that can be exploited.

Their goal on every play is to make the offense play into their hand. Here, they ice against an Iverson cut in a very extreme way. Before the ball screen even comes, the defender is denying a right hand drive and trying to force the ball-handler to the baseline. This forces the offense to play on Cal’s terms.

Cal is pretty aggressive when it comes to helping in the paint. It is pretty clear that they don’t trust most college players to make consistently good kick-out passes and they are willing to be beat by good interior passing. Here, they catch the ball-screen, which opens up a nice pocket pass. However, the help is well positioned and kills the advantage.

This brand of help defense can be overdone at times and it leads to pretty easy passes opening up. Here, the defender steps way too far into the lane and it opens up an easy backdoor cut. It also could have opened up a wide open corner three had the cutter decided to stay there.

Cal’s biggest defensive weakness is just how conservative they can be. They go way under ball-screens, even on prolific shooters. They also soft-switch their poor defensive bigs onto guards and their small guards onto opposing bigs. This opens up some easy shots to be had in the flow of the offense.

Here, they go under on a 41% shooter and get beat with an easy look. Going under on a guy like Michael Flowers could spell trouble for the Golden Bears.

Players to Watch:

Jordan Shepard is the go-to wing scorer for the Bears. The 6-foot-4 wing is averaging 14.1 points, but his shooting has been quite suspect. He is forced to take a lot of difficult shots within the Bears’ offense. Still, he is always a big game candidate with his mix of athleticism and handle with some shot-making.

Anticevich is perhaps the best overall player on the Bears. The 6-8 wing is one of the best shooters on the roster and he is also an adequate isolation scorer. He can get downhill better than expected and he makes solid reads as a driver.

Kelly is the Bears’ leading scorer and a demanding presence in the post. Despite being only 6-8, he uses his strength incredibly well and he has impeccable touch down low. He should present a real challenge for the Cougs’ bigs, as they are a bit on the skinny side and Kelly has the body to push them around.

Sam Alajiki is really the only potential NBA guy on the Cal roster. He is not an elite player yet by any means, as the true freshman averages only 11 minutes per game, but the Ireland native is an elite athlete with shooting potential. At 6-7, he could be a force in the Pac-12 down the line.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch:

Noah Williams just cannot seem to catch a break this season. He has had to miss time with COVID and a non-COVID illness alike as well and he has just not been able to get into any sort of rhythm. After a huge sophomore season, there were high expectations for Williams that he has yet to reach. He is still the most important player on this team and the Cougs need what he brings on both ends, but it feels like we are simply waiting for something to click with him. His touch, generally a strength for Williams, has seemed off this year and it has made it hard for him to capitalize on the rim pressure he generates. Simply making more of his layups will help him raise his efficiency, but his touch from the outside has been a struggle as well. Williams desperately needs to find some rhythm and the Cougs need him to be the go-to guy on this team. Cal makes for an interesting matchup for Williams that he could exploit with his quickness.

Flowers has turned himself into the Cougs’ most important offensive player. His pick-and-roll craft has really started to come along, and his pull-up shooting can sometimes be the only weapon for the Cougs’ struggling offense. However, his lack of advantage creation ability is a real hinderance on the offense. Flowers makes the most sense as a pressure release valve on offense, not a true go-to playmaker. The Cougs’ lack that type of player in general and advantage creation is not the type of thing you can compensate for when a roster doesn’t have it. Still, the Cougs need Flowers to do his best to fill that role and when he plays well, the Cougs have a shot to win.

TJ Bamba is one of the players the Cougs desperately need at his best. Bamba is perhaps the best advantage creator on the roster, even if he struggles to capitalize on those advantages with high-level decision making. His ability to get downhill is impressive and his defensive ability is key when he is locked in as well. Bamba simply needs to bring consistent night-to-night energy by pushing the pace in transition and wreaking havoc on defense. Hopefully the rest will come but the Cougs need him to play like the elite athlete he is more than he tends to.

What to Watch For:

Making easy shots has been a frustratingly difficult challenge for the Cougs. It feels like every one of these disappointing losses comes partly due to missed free throws, missed shots from deep, and missed layups in the lane. Some of the issue is creating these easy looks, as it seems to be a challenge for the Cougs to get these shots consistently with the lack of advantage creation. However, it is made even worse when the Cougs fail to capitalize on the shots they do get. The Cougs shot only 4 of 10 from the free throw line against Stanford and that is a big reason for the major scoring drought that cost them the game.

Getting ugly and winning at the margins is becoming a more obvious necessity for the Cougs by the game. The offense simply cannot remain consistent and that makes defense, transition play, and offensive rebounds all the more important. Winning cannot always be as pretty as we want it to be and sometimes teams need to get their hands dirty. As old school as it sounds, the Cougs desperately need to buy into winning in all the effort categories. That means dominating the glass and exhausting opponents with consistent effort.

The pace of this game could determine who wins and who loses. Cal likes to slow things down as much as possible, control the boards, and keep the opponent from getting out on the break. The Cougs are not exactly a fast team, but they play their best when they are forcing turnovers and generating easy offense on the fast break. This could be a very slow, ugly game at points because neither offense is particularly efficient, but who’s pace the game most resembles could be the difference between who wins and who loses.

Question of the Game:

Will the Cougs be able to push the pace on the Golden Bears?

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