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NCAA Basketball: Washington at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

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What to Watch For: Scouting WSU at Utah

The Cougs continue their Rocky Mountain road trip in Salt Lake City.

The Washington State Cougars are coming off of another disappointing loss in a close game. The Cougs stuck with the Colorado Buffaloes in the altitude despite not having Noah Williams, but they ultimately came up a bit short in the clutch. There were some positive developments from that game though and the Cougs have a chance to add a good win to their resume against Utah.

Today’s game will tip off at 3 p.m. PT and be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks and Pac-12.com (with a cable subscription).

The Utah Utes are a very beatable conference opponent. The Utes are 8-6 with no real impressive wins and some very head-scratching losses. They are on a three-game skid, losing to the likes of Oregon State, Oregon, and Washington. Utah has also lost to TCU and Missouri, so they are hardly an intimidating presence. Still, they are a solid offense that plays with a lot of space and they have a major home court advantage as usual.

Utah Runnin’ Utes

Offense:

2021-22 Utah Synergy Offensive Efficiency

Despite being a team built mostly around offensive talent, the Utes have been a pretty up and down offense thus far. They struggle in spot-up situations despite having quite a few good shooters on their roster. However, the Utes are really solid in a lot of other offensive areas. They are a good passing team and that is a big reason why they are excellent in scoring off cuts and with the roll-man. They get these players open looks at the rim with ease. They don’t have a ton of size and athleticism so they don’t excel on the offensive boards or with post-ups, but their guards do score well in the pick-and-roll even if they are rarely getting all the way to the rim. They are currently the 45th ranked offense according to Barttorvik’s adjusted efficiency. They rely mostly on their spacing and playmaking to find holes in defense and they are solid, though not great, at exploiting those holes.

Something that stands out as a bit weird about the Utah offense is that they never empty out a side to run their actions. This is not unheard of — motion offenses sometimes have a constantly spread floor rather than strong and weak sides — but Utah never has an empty side, even when running straight up pick-and-rolls or dribble hand-offs. There are definitely some motion concepts at play here, but an advantage is never really created and it makes them easier to defend.

Compare this to Colorado, which constantly runs empty side sets and gets easier advantages because of it, but the ball moves a bit less than it does with Utah.

Here is a good example of Utah’s movement principles. The play starts with a dummy screen on the ball, a pass away, and a cut from the passer. Then Both Gach comes off a pindown and gets an on-ball screen. Gach dribbles downhill, passes out, then gets the dribble the handoff on the wing. This play has constant player and ball movement and it makes it hard for the defense to power up and stop a specific action.

Utah uses a lot of really interesting movement concepts, but they also like to keep it simple. Here, they go with the old high school classic; pass and screen away. Basically everyone here gets the ball, feels out an advantage, passes and then looks to screen or cut for another player. It is not something often seen at the college level, but it gets Utah a shot they are content with.

Here, the Utes run a low cross to start the action, but it ends up in their same DHO movement scheme. The big gets the ball on the wing and is patient before getting the ball to Gach who gets downhill. The off-ball movement opens up another attack off the wing and it results in a basket.

Defense:

2021-22 Utah Synergy Defensive Efficiency

The Utes are a pretty poor defensive team despite some solid individual defensive metrics. They do alright handling spot-up shooters, preferring to sell-out on closeouts and force drivers to finish over Carlson at the rim. However, they struggle mightily when guarding the pick-and-roll and this is mostly due to their lack of athleticism. Guards can get downhill with ease against the Utes and playmaking against the Utes is simple. The Utes are one of the worst defenses in the country according to Barttorvik, where they rank 176th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

Something that stands out when watching Utah is how many easy advantages can be created on the ball due to the Utes’ lack of athleticism. A ton of space is consistently created by ball-handlers with or without a screen and it makes offensive flow a lot easier.

When guarding the post, the Utes almost always front. This can be effective in creating some turnovers, but it is mostly to try and keep teams from feeding the post at all. However, it can also lead to easy passes as the lack of athleticism makes successful stunts difficult. Here, the defender from the far corner stunts toward the back hip of the big, but it opens an easy skip to the corner and the defender isn’t quick enough to recover to the shooter.

The Utes run a pretty versatile ball-screen coverage depending on who is involved and where the screen is. Oftentimes, they will hard hedge to try and force the guards to pass out of the pick-and-roll. They will sometimes switch the ball-screen if they are advantaged drag screens or if is between like sized players. This makes it easier for opposing teams to get matchups they want.

When reserve big Lahat Tioune is on the floor, the Utes will usually catch on screens. This is the scheme most commonly run by NBA teams, where the big is back pedaling, staying at the level with the roll-man, and trying to force the guard to challenge them at the rim. This is not a scheme the Utes run often, but it is the type of scheme the Cougs’ guards have struggled with most.

Players to Watch:

Both Gach was a standout for Utah early in his career, and after transferring to Minnesota last season, he is back with the Utes. Gach is averaging a little over 10 points per game on 58.7% true shooting. He is the go-to offensive player on the perimeter for Utah and a potential pro down the line due to his solid perimeter defense.

Branden Carlson is the leading scorer for the Utes and he is having a really solid junior season. Carlson is averaging 13.3 points a contest shooting 51.6% from the field. He is also a threat to stretch the floor. He is only shooting 27.6% from deep, but he is shooting over 2 shots from deep a game and he is very comfortable out there.

David Jenkins Jr is the 6th man for the Utes and he is a Washingtonian. The Tacoma native has bounced around some colleges, starting at South Dakota State, playing at UNLV last season, and now playing his super senior year with Utah. Jenkins Jr is an elite shooter and shot-maker who plays the Alfonso Plummer role for the Utes. He can run off screens, hit step-backs, and he even leverages that shot to get downhill at times.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch:

Efe Abogidi finally looked healthy again against the Buffaloes and that is indescribably huge for the Cougs. Abogidi was my prediction for Pac-12 defensive player of the year in the preseason and this last game has sparked hope that it is still possible. He looked springy again, getting off the floor in a fraction of a second for a big dunk, sliding with wings and guards on the perimeter, and making all finishers uncomfortable. If he can be this player night in and night out, it will make the Cougs a truly formidable team in the Pac-12.

Mouhamed Gueye is still trying to find his ideal role on offense. Despite starting all 14 games thus far this season, he is only averaging 20 minutes a game and he is rarely playing in crunch time for the Cougs. Gueye is still an awesome defender, posting impressive steal and block rates of 2.3% and 4.5% respectively, but the offense has been the real struggle for Gueye. He has 46.7% true shooting, which is especially rough considering Gueye is 6’11, he isn’t spacing the floor for the Cougs, he is not making plays for others, and the guard skills are entirely flashes and nothing concrete. Trying to find some type of offensive role is major for Gueye and the Cougs.

Tyrell Roberts’ season has been the tale of two seasons so far. He has had some really good games, where the jumper is falling, he is getting downhill, and making plays for himself and others. However, there have also been quite a few games where he has not been hitting shots and all of his size-based limitations are on full display. Finding some consistency is key for Roberts, but I think he has been helped out by Kyle Smith putting him in a more consistent role. Roberts’ best games have come when he isn’t tasked to be the primary ball-handler and he is instead always attacking off of a tilted floor as the shooting guard. He gets to focus purely on scoring and he doesn’t have to be the sole advantage creator on a possession.

What to Watch For:

Getting downhill was something the Cougs finally did well against the Buffaloes. That has been the main issue for the Cougs’ offense this whole season. It was not incredible and the Cougs are never going to be an elite rim pressure team, but it was encouraging to see them make a defense shift to guard them. Roberts specifically was getting two-feet into the paint with consistency and the Cougs desperately need him to do that. It is not a coincidence that Abogidi had a great game when the Cougs were getting downhill and the bigs are going to continue thriving when guards are getting downhill and occupying the opposing big.

Making the opposing offense uncomfortable was something the Cougs did successfully in the first half against Colorado. They forced some turnovers, got advantages by playing up-tempo, and they were protecting the rim. For some reason, the Cougs zoned up in the second half and abandoned that defensive intensity, but things looked great when the Cougs were playing stifling man defense. Utah is a team that could struggle with tight pressure and elite rim protection and the Cougs should be able to take advantage of the Utes poor transition defense if they force some turnovers too.

Question of the Game:

Will the Cougs struggle in another close game or can they organize well enough?

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