The Washington State Cougars are coming off a disappointing (but not totally unexpected) loss to the Arizona Wildcats at home, but that is far from the death nail in their season. The Cougs still have an important stretch coming up that they need to take advantage of, starting with the Arizona State Sun Devils at home tonight.
The game will tip-off from Pullman at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
Cougs starting forward Mouhamed Gueye would seem to be likely out for this one after turning his ankle against the Wildcats, and backup big Dishon Jackson remains questionable with an eye injury suffered weeks ago, so it will be a challenge for the Cougs to overcome. Hopefully Andrej Jakimovski — who has been dealing with his own ankle injury — will be healthy enough to contribute and help compensate for the dwindling depth on the WSU roster.
Arizona State is 9th in the Pac-12 standings with a 3-9 record in conference games. They had an incredible upset over UCLA in three overtimes, but they have dropped their two games since that win by a combined 35 points. The Cougs have handily beaten the Sun Devils already this season — in Tempe — and WSU has continued to improve since that win.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Arizona State offense is most easily described as inefficient. They lack high-level playmakers, they do not run many good sets, and they don’t get themselves easy buckets at the line or with offensive rebounds. They rank 246th in kenpom.com’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they are dead last in the Pac-12 conference play on a per possession basis.
The most staggering stat for the ASU offense is that they rank 344th in effective field goal percentage, meaning they don’t get many good looks and they don’t capitalize on difficult ones. They are a poor shooting team from pretty much everywhere, and their lack of quality passing makes getting good looks extremely hard.
Arizona State like to run their pick-and-rolls well above the three-point line. They use this to get their guards a head of steam and force the opposing bigs to guard out on the floor. The Cougs shouldn’t feel forced to adjust to defend this, though, as the ASU guards struggle to take advantage of this extra headway.
ASU likes to keep their offense simple. This is a pindown into a baseline drag screen. The goal is to force the defense to choose guarding the baseline, guarding the pocket, or giving up a pop. The Cougs guard this well, but they do allow a straight-line drive that could result in a bucket.
These plays are run consistently enough that the Cougs’ guards started to jump them. Getting around these pindowns can sometimes be a challenge but the WSU guards are slithery enough to do so consistently.
This is one of the more interesting plays that the Sun Devils run. It is a ball-screen combined with an off-ball hammer action. Hammer screens are when a screen is set for an off-ball, who is on the wing, to get to the corner. The screen isn’t properly set here, but the Cougs get caught ball watching and the shot is still open.
This is what a lot of ASU possessions end up looking like. They play a lot out of middle ball-screens where they are trying to create a quick advantage. If no advantage is created, they tend to make a pass or two and either run another ball-screen or an isolation.
ASU does do some set-up to their plays, like this pistol-chin look, but it just results in another ball-screen in the middle of the floor.
This is another pistol-chin play where an advantage actually is created, but then the advantage is killed and the play ends in a simple isolation.
Certain players on Arizona State are eager to run plays like this. They get the ball in semi-transition, get an early offense drag screen that the defender has to go under because of the angle of the screen, and then the ball-handler pulls up from deep. Sometimes this results in buckets, but it more often looks like this.
When ASU’s offense is clicking, it is usually because they are hitting shots like this in transition. They are not a particularly high-paced team, but they run when they are feeling hot and they are hitting tough threes like this.
Arizona State’s strength is in their defense. They are 61st in the nation in kenpom.com’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and this is primarily due to their length and size. They force a good number of turnovers and they bother opposing shooters. They are 55th in the nation in opponent effective field goal percentage and they make a lot of easy shots difficult with their size. Their rim protectors are intimidating — ranking 41st in block percentage — but they are also jumpy and foul prone, ranking 275th in opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt. They are a good all-around defense that can make it tough to get in an offensive rhythm.
Arizona State generally deep catches pick-and-rolls. They want to funnel guards into their big shot-blockers and prevent lobs or dump offs to the roll-man. The Coug guards tend to excel playing against the drop with their pull-up ability and their craft in the lane.
ASU’s bigs are undersized and that gives WSU the advantage in one-on-one matchups in the post. Their bigs are great shot-blockers when they can load, but they don’t jump well when being pushed around by bigger players.
ASU will compensate for their lack of size by digging hard on post-ups. They are one of the best teams I’ve seen at this, waiting for the big to commit often before digging. This can result in open threes at times, but they also force turnovers and tough shots with this too.
ASU wants to force drivers into the paint, and they will run players off the line to do it. This leads to some uncontrolled closeouts that can be attacked. If the WSU guards can play with pace and not rush into a contested layup, they can get the big off their spots and open up looks for teammates.
Finally, ASU tends to overhelp when it is not needed. Here, the drive is mostly contained with two players, but a third player gets involved and it leads to a great look for the Cougs.
Players to Watch:
DJ Horne is one of the most fun players in the conference. He is an audacious shooter and scorer who is comfortable taking ridiculous threes. Pull-ups, step-backs, fadeaways, you name it, and he can shoot it. He is not particularly efficient, but he can get hot in a hurry and carry the ASU offense.
Marreon Jackson has had a disappointing season for the Sun Devils. The Toledo transfer excelled as a scorer for the Rockets, but he has been inefficient for ASU thus far. He has a 43% true shooting percentage and has struggled to create consistent offense for himself and others. Still, he has that ability to score, get to the rim, and he could pick the Cougs apart if the rim protection takes a step back without Gueye.
Jamiya Neal is a freshman that has a lot of upside in the long-term. The 6’6 wing/guard has a high-level handle for his size, and he flashes a lot of potential shot-making. He has not put it all together yet, but the potential is high with him. He has seen a jump in minutes in recent games and he could have a big game if the shot is falling.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers had an inefficient, but still effective, game against Arizona and he looked even more comfortable being the go-to guy. He even generated some more rim pressure than he had in any other game before, and he managed to hit some huge shots that kept WSU in the game. The last time the Cougs played Arizona State, Flowers had one of his worst games of the season, but he is primed to bounce back and have a big game against the Sun Devils.
TJ Bamba has struggled to find any rhythm in recent weeks. He has scored in double digits only twice in Pac-12 play and his overall game has suffered along with his scoring as he dealt with injury and inconsistent playing time. However, Arizona State offers a chance for Bamba to bounce back in a major way. With fewer bigs playing, Bamba might be matched up with bigger, slower players. This might be a challenge for him defensively, but it offers an opportunity on offense. He could space the big out and either get open looks or draw hard closeouts and get right to the rim.
Noah Williams was a major bright spot in the Arizona game. He came off the bench and brought a lot of defensive intensity, shot 40% from three, and just looked confident for the first time in a long time. He stepped into jumpers confidently, challenged the opposing bigs (for good and for ill), and tried to make plays for others. It feels like he is primed to break out of the season-long funk he has been in against a weak Arizona State team. His best game of the season was arguably in Tempe, and he is a great matchup against ASU. The Cougs will need Williams to step up in the absence of Gueye and start to return to his form from last season.
What to Watch For:
This game could be a chance for WSU to flex some defensive muscle again after holding the Sun Devils to just 29 points in the first one. They won’t do that again, but ASU is a poor offense and the WSU defense looked good against Arizona despite the loss.
The defense is going to struggle a bit more without Gueye, but Abogidi is a still an All-Pac-12 caliber defender and probably the second-best rim protector in the conference. The perimeter defense is no slouch, though, and it will have to step up without an extra big on the backline. Williams, Bamba, and Jakimovski will have to be elite defensively to keep up the Cougs’ impressive defense.
Taking the lid off the rim would be a nice change from the Arizona game. There are times where good looks just don’t fall for this team and it can be difficult to watch. The Arizona State defense is solid, but the Cougs should be able to exploit it if they are hitting their shots. Jakimovski getting healthy would be huge for the team’s efficiency, but others will need to hit shots as well.
Keeping up appearances is huge at this point in the season. It is hard to call any game a “must win,” but Arizona State is the type of team the Cougs should simply beat. They are not all that good, they have lost to worse teams, and the Cougs have beat them before. This WSU team is good, Arizona State is not, and it is as simple as that. This is not a momentum game or a big circle on the schedule — it should just be viewed as business as usual.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs keep ASU below 40 points once again?