The Washington State Cougars have their first Pac-12 challenge on the road against the vulnerable Oregon Ducks on Thursday night (7:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). The Cougs have built some momentum in their last two games with hot three-point shooting, aggressive defense, and overall excellent decision-making. The buzz around this team has shifted from incredibly dower to cautiously optimistic.
Oregon has had a rough start to the season, going 3-4 through their first seven games. There are some major holes with their style of play on both ends, but they are still athletic and filled with guys who are going to play some pro basketball. WSU will have to be on their game if they want to upset the Ducks on the road.
Oregon under Dana Altman has consistently been an elite offense and that doesn’t seem to be any different this year, despite some weirdness in their numbers. They rank 30th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per Kenpom. Their biggest strength on offense is their offensive rebounding, as they rank 23rd in offensive rebound rate. They are also a great finishing team, shooting 53.6% from two this season.
Their biggest struggles have been their turnovers- 228th in the nation- and their shooting. The turnovers are likely a bit less problematic than that number, as they have played elite turnover-forcing teams like Houston and UConn, leading to an inflated turnover rate. The shooting is a different story, though. Oregon is 67th in attempt rate but 286th in three-point percentage, hitting just 29.8%. This disparity could be chalked up to a rough patch, but it also might be indicative of a stagnant offense.
Just like last year, Oregon is a hard offense to scout because they have a lot of actions, but not necessarily a central play through which their scheme plays mostly out of. They run a versatile spread offense, with a lot of Princeton principles. They rely heavily on ball and player movement to manufacture buckets.
Their most common play this season has been this pick-and-pop look. The Ducks clearly trust their forwards to hit threes, so they space away, set a screen, and hope to create an open look.
Oregon loves to run post-ups for their bigs. These are often not set plays, rather just seals that come out of the flow of the offense. They have multiple players who can score and make plays out of the post.
Oregon will run a lot of actions out of a chin look. Chin is a spacing set where two players start above the break, two players are on the wing, and a big is in the post. Chin usually involves a downscreen and then either a post-entry, away screens, or a ball-screen. Here, the ball enters the high post and then it turns into a high-low action.
The spread chin set-up is all about player movement, but keeping the spacing consistent. Players are always moving to one of the four spots on the perimeter. They will set away screens or blurs to create slight advantages and keep the spacing the same. It makes reads easier and opens up more space for drives.
Chin offense is often initiated with a downscreen and aggressive defenses can get beat if they are too focused on taking the ball-handlers. Oregon will get cheap buckets out of the flow of their offense if even one defender is not locked in.
The Ducks do have quite a few specific actions they will run once or twice a game to create a different looks and prevent teams from cheating the chin sets. This is a gorgeous double-down set-up to create a lob as a counter for the big shading over on the initial downscreen.
The Ducks also like to mix in some flex cuts, where the screens are set down at the block and the guards or wings are curling around them to get looks. This is an old school play, but it is enough of a switch-up to throw some teams off.
The turnovers have been a major weakness for the Ducks and it is mostly because they have struggled mightily with hard hedges. Oregon lacks high-level ball-handlers and this makes dribbling out of a hard hedge difficult. To counter, the Ducks will pop the screener, but if off-ball defenders are active, they can take that pass away.
Finally, Oregon has struggled to hit open shots this season. WSU is usually aggressive at running players off the line and forcing them into the help defense, but they might benefit from letting Oregon cast away from deep.
The Ducks are a more than solid defense this season and their athleticism and length allow them to bother just about everyone. They currently rank 72nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, due mostly to their prowess defending around the rim. The Ducks are holding opponents to an impressive 45.5% two-point percentage and they manage to this without fouling- ranking 11th in opponent free throw rate. The Ducks force few turnovers and they allow teams to bomb it from outside, but their interior defense and rebounding make them a solidly above-average group on that end.
Oregon’s go-to defense is a matchup zone. They have a lot of length, athleticism, and rim protection and they want to use that to their advantage. The matchup zone lightens the effectiveness of screening actions without leaving the soft-spots that a traditional zone would.
The zone has its strengths, but it can get confused with clever actions. Oregon is 336th in opponent three-point attempt rate and 4th in the percentage of opponent points that come from threes. The zone is meant to pack-in on drives and deter post-ups, but good movement will result in open looks from deep.
Despite it being a zone, the matchup aspect means that the Ducks will guard pick-and-roll somewhat traditionally. If their center is involved in the pick-and-roll, they will drop him and plug the floor to prevent easy layups or lobs.
If the screening action doesn’t involve the five, the Ducks will hard hedge at the point of attack. They trust their frontcourt to be fairly switchable and this allows them to be aggressive.
Players to Watch:
Kel’el Ware is the best NBA prospect on this team and he is potentially the best NBA prospect that Dana Altman has ever coached. He is an incredibly skilled and mobile 7-footer who is learning how to play in quick time. He is Oregon’s highest upside player and he can wreak havoc on both ends of the ball.
N’Faly Dante has started to put it all together and become the dominant big-man everyone expected him to develop into. He has evolved a lot defensively, being a real presence in the post and looking a lot more mobile than he did early in his career. He is still a monster offensively, scoring in the post with ease, operating as a roll-man, and he has even gotten comfortable as a passer. Dante is Oregon’s best player and their go to guy on both ends.
Will Richardson has never quite hit the highs many of expected of him in Eugene, but he is a more than solid point guard running the show for the Ducks. Oregon trusts Richardson, a 5th year senior, to run the majority of their sets and create shots at the end of the clock. His size, handle, and jumper make him a threat to go off at any time.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch
Mouhamed Gueye had his best game of the season against Detroit Mercy. Maybe it didn’t show up on his stat sheet, but it did show up on Antoine Davis’. He exceled playing the hard hedge, getting up to the point of attack and sliding his feet. He used his length to make taking shots off the dribble hard and he even created a couple havoc moments with that length. There are going to be NBA scouts watching this game and Gueye can show what he can do at the next level. Expect WSU to keep with the hard hedge, forcing Oregon to hit shots from behind the arc and taking away easy lobs to the bigs. Gueye can truly be an all-conference defender in the right scheme. Our coaching staff has found that scheme, now it’s up to Gueye to execute at the highest level.
TJ Bamba is off to an incredibly efficient start to this season. He is averaging 16 points a game shooting 52.9% from the field, including 56.5% from three. He is WSU’s best isolation scorer and his defense has also looked excellent in the early season. However, there are some questions as to whether he can stay efficient while playing against better athletes in the Pac-12. Oregon doesn’t have an obvious weak link on defense and most of their athletes can match Bamba. The Cougs will still need him to get them buckets on drives and continue to be an elite spot-up shooter against higher level competition.
Kymany Houinsou is probably the most trusted bench player for the Cougs at this point. It is still a bit up in the air who will play real bench minutes come Pac-12 play, but Houinsou feels like the best bet to be the 6th man. His defense has been incredible, even when playing the four or the five. He can hound ball-handlers but he also excels in rotation. He has also flashed a lot as a ball-handler and driver, getting to the rim consistently and already growing as a finisher. How feels like the type of player who could scale up to Pac-12 play, as he grows more comfortable in the scheme and his rotation defense becomes more valuable.
What to Watch For:
Shooting over 50% from three is something that is absolutely not sustainable, but it is important to acknowledge that this is a legitimately elite shooting team. Bamba, Justin Powell, and Jabe Mullins have all looked the part of elite shooters and that is even without Andrej Jakimovski, a near 40% shooter. This team’s passing unlocks a lot of open shots as well, as everyone is looking to make the extra pass to the open shooter. Oregon is yet to play a team that shoots like WSU, but their athleticism could allow them to run shooters off the line. WSU will need to continue shooting well from three and hunting those open looks.
Effort was perhaps the biggest reason for WSU’s two disappointing losses. They were outhustled and out-desired. That was not the case in their rousing win against Detroit Mercy, and even against Eastern Washington to an extent. They played with improved desire and defensive effort, outrunning their opponents and hounding them at the point of attack. This defensive aptitude made all the difference and it allowed them to hold an elite offense to a bad game. They will need to not only match effort in this game, but out-effort Oregon if they want to secure a huge road win.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs shoot above 40% from deep again?