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NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Colorado

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What to Watch For: Scouting WSU vs. Colorado

The Cougars travel to a notoriously difficult place to play to take on a beatable Pac-12 opponent.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars are getting out of COVID protocols and perhaps glad to have a much-needed break after a tough end to non-conference play. WSU looks to regroup and start the bulk of conference play off on the right foot against the Colorado Buffaloes, who are the type of win the Cougs desperately need if they want to reach their potential within the conference.

Tipoff will be at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN2. You can also watch online via the ESPN App or at watchespn.com (with a cable subscription).

The Buffaloes remain one of the steadiest teams in the Pac-12. They had a solid non-conference run, though they had some close calls against mediocre mid-majors, but they beat the teams they were expected to beat and lost to the teams they were expected to lose to. Colorado tends to have a significant home court advantage thanks to the elevation they play in, but this is the most beatable the Buffaloes have been in a long time and the Cougs could capture an impressive road win.

Colorado Buffaloes

Offense:

2021-22 Colorado Synergy Defensive Efficiency

The Buffaloes’ offense is definitely above average, but it lacks the juice it had last year without an elite point guard to run the show. Colorado excels mostly in areas that take advantage of their size and playmaking. Things like offensive rebounds, scoring off cuts, and the roll-man scoring. These are the sorts of buckets that play strictly to Colorado strengths and the types of areas they score in year after year. The guards on the roster are solid scorers out of the pick-and-roll, but they excel mostly in playmaking for teammates and feeding cutters and roll-men.

Colorado’s best offensive trait is their decision-making. They exploit holes in a defense at a high-level, even if they don’t always convert the shots at the end. Zoning up against the Buffs is often a death sentence because they move the ball so well. Here, Eastern Washington zones up on a baseline out of bounds and Colorado picks it apart with their passing.

The Buffaloes’ decision-making extends to their patience when running plays. They don’t rush plays and they let things develop. Here, they start with a pistol action, which is a guard-guard hand-off and cut. The guard that cuts then runs off a pin-down and gets the ball back at the top of the key. Off-ball movers then clear-out the side and then a clear-side pick-and-roll is run. Something that shows up consistently with Colorado is also how aggressively they get on the offensive boards and that helps them get easy points when they aren’t finishing plays off of the initial action.

Here’s another look at the Buffs’ pistol action. They will almost always run the cutters and even the pass receiver on cross cuts along the baseline while the action is set-up off top. They do this to clear a side out for a pick-and-roll, which is the go-to offensive set for Colorado.

The Cougs are known to hard hedge against drag screens and Colorado is very used to this type of defense. This is an example of a quick slip getting Evan Battey wide-open in the mid-range. They often slip screens to fight the hedge or Colorado will reverse dribble and set-up high post actions with Battey or Tristan Da Silva.

Defense:

2021-22 Colorado Synergy Defensive Efficiency

Colorado is a bit of a mixed bag defensively. They are pretty poor when it comes to defending spot-ups, which make up the majority of their play types, but they excel in guarding the pick-and-roll. The Buffaloes have elite guard defenders and a frontcourt that can rotate and block shots. They keep opposing ball-handlers in check at an elite level (89th percentile). Everything else teeters around average for the Buffs and they are the type of defense with some weaknesses to exploit. They aren’t great in transition defense and good post-scorers can score on them down low. Those are two forms of offense that the Cougs could really exploit.

Colorado, like most high-major teams, runs a variable system when it comes to guarding the pick-and-roll. They hedge most ball-screens, but they are quick to switch their bigs onto opposing guards with virtually any side dribble taken by the guard. Here, Battey hedges, but as soon as Mason Landdeck dribbles back, it becomes a full switch. Landdeck beats Battey downhill and gets where he wants to go.

Colorado will switch any hard set ball-screen. Here, Lawson Lovering switches off of Ethan Price but doesn’t switch onto Steele Venters off the ghost screen. This leads to an easy entry pass to the big. Mixing up hard screens, DHOs, and ghost screens can show the cracks in the Colorado defense.

This inconsistent screen coverage can lead to a lot of miscommunications off the ball. Here, KJ Simpson is clipped when guarding Landdeck, but Jabari Walker doesn’t switch and Landdeck gets the easy layup off the cut.

There are some situations where Colorado will navigate screens rather than switching, specifically if Tristan Da Silva is guarding someone. Da Silva is the best wing defender for the Buffaloes and he is often guarding the opposing teams’ top wing. Here, he gets through two tough screens and sticks with Venters for what ends up being a game winning defensive possession. Expect him to guard Noah Williams or TJ Bamba, and it will be tough for those guys to get to their spots against him.

In the post, Colorado pretty much always fronts, even when they have a traditional big in. There are times where the Buffaloes can get easy steals by denying the pass or having a help defender shoot to the hip of the big. However, when the pass is entered, the help is inconsistent and easy buckets can be had.

Players to Watch:

Battey has seemingly been at Colorado for 10 years and he is still the steady presence he has always been. Battey is a good passer at his size who operates out of the short roll and in the high post a lot. He is someone streaky, as his games often depend on how much his shot is falling. However, whether the shot falls or not, Battey is the veteran leader for the Buffaloes.

Jabari Walker is the best NBA prospect on this roster. The son of former NBA player Samaki Walker is averaging 13.3 points and 8 rebounds per game shooting with a 54.1% true shooting. Walker is a confident shooter at his size and he is also a versatile defender. He is often the 5 defensively for Colorado and his rim protection is really solid. He is also comfortable switching out onto guards and wings on the perimeter. Overall, Walker is the Buffaloes’ best player, an All-Pac-12 caliber player, and a potential first round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Tristan Da Silva is the younger brother of former Stanford Cardinal and All-Pac-12 forward Oscar Da Silva. Tristan is definitely more of a perimeter player than his brother was. Colorado’s Da Silva is averaging only 7.5 points per game, but he does so much that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet: stretching the floor, playing as a wing playmaker, and often guarding the opposing team’s leading scorer. He is a very solid wing player who could find his way onto an NBA roster someday.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch:

As the main portion of conference play starts, it is natural to look to our best players to take a step up. Noah Williams is someone the Cougs ride and die on in most games. When he is off his game, WSU struggles on both ends and feels out of sorts. Williams is the go-to guy for WSU — he’s using the highest percentage of possessions on the team and taking the highest percentage of shots when he’s on the floor, per kenpom.com — but he hasn’t taken the leap many of us hoped he would after his stellar sophomore campaign.

He is averaging fewer points on worse efficiency, and he has struggled to find his rhythm all year. Williams has had a tough stretch over the last four games, not once shooting above 33% from the field. He still has his moments on both ends, but the Cougs need Williams to be an elite slashing wing and he hasn’t quite reached that level yet this year. For WSU to reach their ceiling in Pac-12 play, Williams needs to be an All-Pac-12 caliber guy.

Michael Flowers has been the steadiest player on the roster this season. He has his limitations, specifically when trying to get to the rim or navigate screens on defense, but he hits a lot of tough shots and he is the best spacer on the floor as well. The tough shot-making is huge for the Cougs and it should, perhaps, be leaned on more in the clutch situations. It will be interesting to see how Flowers handles the elite guard defense that the Buffaloes will throw at him, but the Cougs will need him to continue to excel as a scoring point guard. He has had some great non-conference games, specifically against South Dakota State and New Mexico State, where he kept the Cougs in the game with his tough shot-making.

Efe Abogidi entered the season with astronomically high expectations. He was getting NBA buzz and had the upside to be the best defensive player in the Pac-12. So far this season, he has looked like a hollow shell of what we expected. He has been hampered by a knee injury and he is struggling with the lack of consistent point guard play on offense. Abogidi is someone who should excel in the roll, catching lobs, or even as pick-and-pop guy, but he has not really been put in this role this season though because the Cougs lack the downhill guard threat who can occupy the big and open up lobs or dump-offs to Abogidi.

This was an aspect of the game that Isaac Bonton excelled in last season and Abogidi’s game is suffering without it. Abogidi has gotten a lot of usage in the post and it has been really inefficient for him. Hopefully he can start to get healthy and become that dominant force on defense again. The offense is likely to remain iffy throughout the season due to the roster construction present, but he has the ability to be a game-breaking rim protector and the Cougs could use that to succeed in the conference.

TJ Bamba has had a really solid sophomore season overall, but he has had some shaky games in the last couple outings. He has doubled his points per game and become a really solid spot-up shooter since his freshman year, but he is still struggling to leverage his athleticism to get paint touches. He has, at times, been a victim of poor spacing on the Cougs’ roster, but he also sometimes lacks assertiveness as a driver. Bamba is 6’5 with elite vertical athleticism and some shift as a ball-handler. He has had his troubles with turnovers in the past, but he should still be trying to assert himself more. Getting that downhill threat would really help the Cougs offense flow a bit better. When he is on, he is a vital piece of this team and his best games against USC and South Dakota State show a potential star down the line.

Mouhamed Gueye has been really quiet in the past few games for the Cougs. The freshman big-man has some elite flashes on both ends, hitting tough turnarounds, throwing down huge dunks, blocking shots, and tracking guards and wings on the perimeter, but these have still remained flashes and not consistent play throughout games. The Cougs need Gueye to be an elite secondary rim protector and versatile defender first and foremost, but finding a real offensive role is vital too. He is a solid offensive rebounder, and he has had his moments in the post, but the shooting and guard skills that he showed in high school have not translated yet and he is mostly an energy big at this point.

Finding some consistency from Gueye is a necessity if the Cougs plan to truly compete. There is an option where Gueye could be moved to a bench role and one of Andrej Jakimovski or DJ Rodman step into the starting spot, but it is clear that Kyle Smith remains very high on what Gueye can be. Gueye is still waiting on his true breakout game, but there is potential for that to come against higher level play in the Pac-12.

What to Watch For:

Slowing down and focusing on the here and now is a personal New Year’s resolution of mine, but it could also be a very useful team for this team and fans of this team to do. Everyone was caught up in calling this team one of the most underrated in the country and a potential tournament team. Then, WSU lost some tough games to teams they probably should have beat and those hopes were seemingly scrapped. After the 8-5 start to the season, many have said this team can only make the tournament if they win the Pac-12. The weight of expectations weighed heavy on this team and its fanbase, but the Cougs enter conference play as they always do: the underdog with a need to prove themselves and this is as good a time as any to start proving just how formidable this team can be.

The offense has been a slog in all of WSU’s worst performances and it is easy to see why. They lack consistent rim pressure from their guard spots, they don’t have consistent decision-makers, and there isn’t an every possession playmaker on the roster. When defense first teams who struggle with offense look to excel in conference play, they tend to look to find the easy, ugly points to be had. Getting out in transition, grabbing offensive rebounds, and running some more gimmicky plays to get easy looks all help boost middling offenses. The Cougs’ best offensive games have all benefitted from a fast pace and a lot of offensive rebounds. To excel in Pac-12 play, the Cougs should buy into this “ugly” style of offense and win at the margins with tempo and intensity.

The Cougs’ rim protection will need to be top notch in this game for them to win. Colorado’s guards rely a lot on getting to the rim and using their athleticism to finish and make plays. If WSU’s bigs step up and make life difficult for the Buffaloes’ guards, then Colorado will have to rely a lot on outside shooting, of which they are very streaky. The Cougs are going to have their offensive issues as they have over the past couple games — it is a product of the roster construction — however, the defense can really boost the Cougs’ and they will need it here.

Question of the Game:

Will the Cougs end the game with more offensive rebounds than the Buffaloes?

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