The Washington State Cougars are set for their biggest matchup of the year as they take on the 4th-ranked Arizona Wildcats in Beasley Coliseum tonight. The Cougs are surging at the right time as the schedule is ramping up. Arizona is only the first test in what will be the make-or-break stretch for the Cougs’ postseason hopes.
The game will be at 6 p.m. PT from Pullman and can be watched on Fox Sports 1 or FoxSports.com (with a cable subscription).
The Wildcats have been darlings this season under new head coach Tommy Lloyd, and they likely come to Pullman with expectations to win and win big. They have handled all other top opponents in the Pac-12 and their thoughts are towards the Big Dance in March.
The Arizona offense is potent and consistent. They are 12th in the nation in kenpom.com’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and a huge reason for this is the pace they play at. The Wildcats are third in average possession length and fourth in adjusted tempo, and they specialize in getting early, easy looks with their athleticism. They run any chance they get, off of missed shots, off of turnovers, and even off of makes sometimes. They will look for easy post position, early drives, and even pull-up jumpers early in the clock.
They don’t force a ton of turnovers — 169th in opponent turnover percentage — but they do force a lot of missed baskets that they will run on. Even a lot of their half court sets are focused on quick hitters, early drag screens, post-ups, and some early hammer actions. They are fast and the Cougs will have to adjust to keep them from getting a lot of easy buckets early in the clock.
Arizona picks apart bad transition defense like no other team in the country. Opposing teams have to be perfect when it comes to picking up the ball-handler, players sprinting to the rim, and shooters spotting up. Here, the ball-handler is picked up, Drew Peterson locks onto Bennedict Mathurin, Boogie Ellis picks up Pelle Larson, but none of that matters because Isaiah Mobley doesn’t get back under the rim in time and Dalen Terry gets the easy dunk.
Arizona doesn’t need to force a turnover to push the pace. Opponents have to be constantly vigilant because they will run at even the slightest opportunity to try and create easy looks.
Even in half-court settings, Arizona doesn’t waste time. The ball-handler takes it to a wing himself, one of the bigs rushes into post position, and the other lags behind. This gets them into chin spacing with no wasted movement. Azuolas Tubelis looks to the big in the post and sees that the pass isn’t there, so he passes it back to the ball-handler and they run a drag screen.
This is another look at a similar concept. They get into a chin look early, run some off-ball stuff, and attack with a middle ball screen early in the shot clock. Sometimes this pace can lead to issues though, specifically with spacing. Here, the play runs towards the strong side and there is no one the defense has to worry about weakside. It makes the play messy, and it leads to a turnover.
When Arizona is slowing it down, they run some loose sets where they trust their players to playmake out of open scenarios. They will run these continuous ball-screens, waiting for someone to break the paint and make a play. Everyone on the Arizona roster is a willing passer too and even bigs like Oumar Ballo make high-level passes like this one.
They also run some pistol actions, but they tend to focus on the middle of the floor. Rather than running the handoff like is often done in pistol sets, the passer burn cuts and a down screen is set for Mathurin. Mathurin then runs the high pick-and-roll with Ballo.
Arizona’s passing is most potent when getting their players into post position. Here, Christian Koloko makes a great interior pass to Tubelis, where he hits the nice hook shot. Arizona runs quite a few plays through their three post players, all of whom can score and pass out of the post.
Running two bigs as often as the Wildcats do has its drawbacks though. Sometimes the spacing is poor and plays go nowhere because two defenders get to sit in the paint on defense.
The Cougs like to run some zone here and there, but it would probably be a bad idea against Arizona. They pick zones apart and the poor spacing is less of an issue when defenders are defending areas and not players.
Arizona is an intimidating defense to say the least. They are 5th in the nation in kenpom.com’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and this is mostly due to their incredible rim protection. Koloko is one of the best rim protectors in the nation, Tubelis is an excellent help defender with his size, and Ballo is one of the best defenders in the conference despite coming off the bench. They are 12th in the country in block percentage and first in opponent two-point field goal percentage. They have a lot of perimeter defensive talent too; Terry, Mathurin, and Justin Kier are all solid defenders on the perimeter. Arizona is a disciplined defense, rarely fouling and forcing opponents to shoot tough shots. They do allow a solid amount of three pointers, and they don’t force a ton of turnovers, which could give the Cougs a chance to keep up on offense if they are shooting well from deep.
Arizona plays a much more NBA style defense than the Cougs are used to. That is to say, they are much less focused on beating teams with gimmick coverages. Instead, they want to make their opponents beat their talent. They drop their bigs, challenging guards to drive into them. They don’t hard hedge or high catch and this allows them to be one of the best defenses in the country.
Their pace is one of their greatest strengths, even on defense. Opponents actually tend toward long possessions against the Wildcats, but they can speed teams’ decision making up and throw them off their games — especially when Arizona’s offense is in a rhythm, where it can feel like the game is getting out of hand and that can lead teams to hurry a bit.
Arizona plays personnel well, but they default to digging hard, even when that means giving up open jumpers. Here, it doesn’t hurt them, but Tyrell Roberts or Michael Flowers likely makes them pay if Arizona gives up the same shot.
Arizona overhelps quite a bit and this can make a lot of their closeouts off-balance and scrambled. This opens up straight line drives and playmaking can come easier out of these scrambled situations.
Sometimes the closeout doesn’t come at all and the corner jumpers are completely open.
Players to Watch:
Bennedict Mathurin is a likely lottery selection in this year’s draft and for good reason. The 6-foot-5 wing is one of the best shooters in the country and he combines that jumper with elite athleticism. He is not a great playmaker, but he has moments as a passer and driver and his off-ball utility makes him coveted by NBA teams. It will be interesting to see who the Cougs decide to put on him. Noah Williams seems like the obvious match-up, but the Cougs might want Williams to guard Arizona’s point guard and that would leave Mathurin with a size advantage.
Azuolas Tubelis is another potential NBA draft pick and one of the smoothest post players in the country. Tubelis scores 14.5 points per game, mostly in the low-post, though he will occasionally step-out and take a jumper. His passing is also impressive, as he averages 2.5 assists a game. His offensive gravity is substantial, and he makes a lot of the Arizona offense work. The Cougs do have a good matchup for Tubelis though, as Mouhamed Gueye is exactly the type of player that Tubelis often struggles to score on down low. The Cougs should look to attack Tubelis in the pick-and-roll as he is a bit flat-footed defensively and our guards should be able to create space against him.
Christian Koloko can most accurately be described as huge. He is 7’1 with a 7’4 wingspan. He is a menace on defense and the current frontrunner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year. His offense is most potent in transition, as he runs the floor well for a big and can get looks right at the rim. He can occasionally hit a mid-range jumper or post-up too. His two-way play is elite for college basketball, and he is another player on this roster likely to hear Adam Silver call his name come draft day.
Kerr Kriisa is one of the most inconsistent players in the Pac-12, but when he is hot, he is hard to stop. His shooting gravity is what stands out most. His jumper is elite off the catch and off pull-ups. His pick-and-roll operation is also impressive, finding roll-men and shooters along the perimeter with ease. Keeping Kriisa contained must be a major key for the Cougs.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers is someone who needs to have a big game if the Cougs are going to pull off the upset. Flowers has been the Cougs’ best player and his hot weekend in California could just be the start of a special run. Flowers is shooting 39.6% from deep on the season on a heavy diet of difficult pull-ups. He should get a number of good looks against the Wildcats, but he is also going to have to continue hitting the tough ones to push WSU over the top.
Noah Williams has had a tough junior season, but the Cougs still go as far as Williams can take them. Williams’ defense will be the most important thing for him in this one, as the Cougs will need him to erase one of Mathurin or Kriisa to be successful. However, the offense will be the swing for him. The offense has been rough, but he still has the innate talent — it just hasn’t shown up enough this year. He is going to have to get to the rim and finish, but also play under control and make plays for others.
Tyrell Roberts has had an interesting first season as a Coug. He started the year incredibly inconsistent, but in recent times, he has become the model of consistency for the Cougs. Since the Northern Colorado game, Roberts has scored in double digits in all but one game and he contributes a lot outside of scoring too. He competes above his size defensively, has taken a step-up as a passer and playmaker, and he spaces the floor for other actions the Cougs want to run. He has far succeeded my expectations for him and the Cougs will need him to continue that stretch of good play against the Wildcats.
Andrej Jakimovski followed his best stretch as a college player with two games where he took five total shots. That is not to speak ill of Jakimovski, as the Cougs won both those games and his spacing and defense were still valuable, but it is notable. Jakimovski — who Kyle Smith said has been fighting an ankle injury — is an inherently dependent player who requires other to make plays for him. It was clear that the Cougs wanted to rely on their starting five over the California trip, but Jakimovski might be called on to have a big game again against the Wildcats. His size might be the biggest factor, as a huge key for WSU will be controlling the boards and the pace. His spacing is always incredibly valuable.
What to Watch For:
The pace of this game will likely be a major deciding factor on whether the Cougs can compete or not. The Cougs are 252nd in Adjusted tempo per Kenpom, whereas Arizona is 4th in the same metric. Arizona has a tendency to simply run teams out of the gym by creating good looks in transition and the Cougs will need to slow them down — if the tempo is high, it probably means Arizona is getting easy buckets. USC was able to make Arizona grind it out and it was almost an upset for the Trojans. If the Cougs can keep the pace down and make Arizona score in the halfcourt, then the Cougs might have a chance.
The bigs are going to be huge for the Cougs in this one. Gueye and Abogidi are going to have to dominate on the defensive end and eat up the boards as much as possible. Gueye and Abogidi will not only have to worry about guarding high-level post-up players, but they will also have to protect the rim from driver and make sure they are never beat in transition. They are both capable of it and this could be a statement game for one or both.
Someone is going to need to step up if the Cougs are going to pull of this upset. A huge win like this would be just doesn’t happen if someone doesn’t play above their level. Maybe this is Flowers or Roberts getting hot and hitting tough pull-up after tough pull-up, maybe it is Gueye or Abogidi getting buckets at the rim and stifling the Wildcats on defense, maybe it is Williams recapturing that magic from last year. Whoever it is, someone is going to have to have a huge game.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs be able to slow the pace and keep Arizona from getting easy transition buckets?