The Washington State Cougars are coming off of a rousing victory against the Utah Utes, and they look to continue that good play into what feels like a must-win game against the Colorado Buffaloes at home.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. PT from Pullman, and it will be broadcast on FS1. You also can watch it at foxsports.com (with a cable subscription).
The Cougs are still in the vicinity of the tournament bubble despite some tough losses. They rank 45th in the Kenpom’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin, which paints them as a borderline elite defense. The Pac-12 is completely wide open, but the Cougs need to string together some wins to get back into the tournament, and separating themselves from the likes of Colorado — which they already have lost to — is a big deal.
The Buffaloes have lost three of their last four, including losses to USC, Oregon, and Washington. They still remain on the tournament bubble, along with Oregon and WSU, but they also need to string some wins together to truly get there. This is a huge game for both of these teams.
The Buffaloes are uninspired on offense, lacking a true identity and go-to strengths. They rank 126th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin and they are 8th in the Pac-12 for their conference games. They are a turnover-prone team, ranking 273rd in turnover percentage and they are 204th in terms of effective field goal percentage. However, their greatest offensive strength is their ability to get to the line, as they rank 20th in free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Their other signifiers are that they are an alright passing team, an alright offensive rebounding team, and they don’t take a ton of threes. However, they tend to get some ugly points that allow them to make up for some of their deficiencies and help them win tough games — something we saw in the first matchup.
One of the things that helped Colorado beat the Cougs in Boulder was how easily they exploited the WSU zone. The WSU zone was soft, and Colorado hit a hot shooting stretch when the Cougs went to it. Here, they run a really simple flare screen to the weak corner. WSU has had moments where the zone is really active and it throws teams off, but it looked lethargic against the Buffaloes.
Beyond the fact that this was the Cougs’ first game after a Covid layoff and they were missing Noah Williams, I think a lot of the issue with this zone was when there were two bigs and one had a foot glued to the paint.
Colorado ran some plays that gave the Coug defense fits. They run a lot of dribble handoffs with Evan Battey, and his shooting ability makes it difficult to defend. They open up the action with a curled pindown and it clears out a side for the ball-handler to drive on.
Colorado has a really solid sense for where to move off the ball. Here, they run a sort of pinch play to get into a weakside drag screen. Colorado spaces the floor well and Tristan da Silva moves to where the help defense leaves from and gets the open look.
Colorado got out and ran a lot against the Cougs. Here, they take a live rebound and still push the pace into what amounts to an open look at the rim. Their ability to beat WSU down the floor made WSU’s usual offensive rebound attempts a dangerous choice between getting a board and giving up a transition shot.
Colorado is far from an elite passing team, but they have a few really high-level passers, and they were able to take apart the somewhat-overeager Coug defense. Here, DJ Rodman goes for a steal on a post entry pass, but the pass is perfectly placed, and it leads t a wide-open dunk for Jabari Walker.
Colorado is a team that the Cougs can help heavily against because their shooting is below average. It is especially notable on the guard line, where the Cougs were able to double in the post and dig hard and drivers with little fear of giving up three points.
One of the biggest factors to Colorado’s win was the fact that they got some whistles. There were quite a few calls that were really frustrating and gave Colorado some free points.
Colorado is a solid defense overall. They rank 49th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and they are 4th in the Pac-12 during conference play. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they prevent offensive rebounds, don’t foul too much, and they contest shots well. They rank 60th in the country in opponent effective field goal percentage and that is partially because of the size they have to contest shots. They force teams to take and make tough shots in order to beat them.
The Cougs’ offense was helped a lot in the first game by their play in transition. They forced turnovers and made plays on the break. This helps buoy the sometimes-stagnant Cougs offense and keeps them from going on the rough scoring draughts we so often see.
However, as nice as it is to force turnovers, the Buffaloes forced some as well and got out on the break too. The Cougs forced 17 turnovers and only turned it over 11 times, but many of those were live ball turnovers and it allowed for easy baskets.
The Cougs’ ball-handlers also sometimes struggled with the hard hedge the Buffs threw out. Our ball-handlers are small and not athletic enough to get downhill against the hedge and it led to some turnovers like this.
The Cougs were able to beat the hard hedge with just making simple passes and playing within the scheme. Here, they simply make the one pass away to the wing. TJ Bamba’s man was tagging the roll and the closeout was slow, allowing him to knock down the shot.
The Cougs also beat the hard hedge with some simple slips by the roll-man and timely passing from Michael Flowers. This is perfect delivery to Efe Abogidi for the slam.
The hedge, and Colorado’s defense as a whole, worked best when the Cougs were running two bigs. The Cougs spacing was wonky and it just allowed Colorado to be more active all around.
However, when the Cougs did play with only one big, the floor was a lot more open. Here, Bamba gets the hard middle drive, stays composed, and makes the excellent kickout pass to Rodman for the triple. Playing with a more spaced-out floor will be a huge boost to the Cougs offense against the Buffs.
Players to Watch:
KJ Simpson is a freshman currently playing a limited role, but he is almost certain to blow-up down the line. He is a fun mix of athleticism, proprioception, handle, and shot-making that should torment the Pac-12 for years to come.
Evan Battey feels like he’s been around for a million years and he never seems to go away. He always kills the Cougs with his passing and shooting at the five. In the last game, the Cougs started to figure out how to score on him in the pick-and-roll, but he still finds out how to be impactful on offense. Making him put the ball on the floor and contesting his shots should help slow him down, but he always finds a way to get his buckets.
(Also, he has another year of eligibility if he wants it. Really.)
Jabari Walker remains the best NBA prospect on this team and his inside scoring and defense has given the Cougs fits. He is really versatile, scoring as a roll-man, in post-ups, and even occasionally hitting spot-ups and attacking from the perimeter. He is also the most effective defender in the hard hedge and he gives almost all Pac-12 guards struggles.
Keeshawn Barthelemy is the best guard on the Colorado roster. He makes ball-handlers really work in the pick-and-roll and almost no one scores on him in isolations. His offense is hit or miss, but he is at his best when driving downhill and scoring. The jump-shot isn’t great, but he is the shooter Colorado is most comfortable with in late game situations.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Mouhamed Gueye is probably the most important player for the Cougs in this game. He will have to play under control and stay out of foul trouble for the Cougs to get the most out of him. His defense could be game breaking and his ability to finish in the pick-and-roll is huge for WSU on both ends.
Andrej Jakimovski looks to continue his heater in a game where they need him to step up. The jump-shot remains elite, amongst the best in the Pac-12, but his defense has been what has been most impressive. He is very active in help, he excels as a defensive rebounder, and he uses his strength really well to contain drives. He is still susceptible to guards who can beat him with lateral space creation, but he is really solid in every other aspect on the defensive end.
Michael Flowers has been the best player on the roster all season and he will have to be the go-to guy down the stretch of this year. He has really figured out how to get the most of his limited athleticism and his passing has been really solid all-around for the Cougs. The shot-making remains an impressive skill and the Cougs do best in games where he puts it all together.
What to Watch For:
Keeping up the intensity is the main area of importance with the Cougs. Every time the Cougs seem to get a little momentum, it has all come crashing down. They start off the season 5-0 but lose to a mediocre Eastern Washington team. They blow out Weber State, but then drop two straight by six total points. Now the Cougs have won two straight and they feel like there is a real chance to compete for the tournament.
It feels like this could be another moment where the teams falls flat, where they let the opponents go on another 26-2 run, and everyone leave Beasley disappointed. However, there is also optimism that this is where that changes. The Cougs have been the best defense in the Pac-12 during conference play and it really feels like some things are clicking on offense. Keeping this intensity and momentum is huge for the Cougs as they enter this final leg of the season. This team still has a shot at the postseason, but they will have to come out on top in games like this.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs keep Evan Battey below 15 points?