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Scouting the Coug offense: What is going on?

Many have lamented the issues with WSU’s offense. But the problems aren’t as simple as they might seem.

Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Washington State Cougars’ recent losing streak has been frustrating to watch at times, and a lot of blame has been thrown at the feet of the offense. There is good reason for this, as the team has scored 60 or below in each of the last three games despite holding the opponents to mostly poor shooting nights. The Cougs’ offense has consistently fallen flat at key moments, and it is easy to lament that.

However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is going wrong with the offense. There is plenty of discussion about the overreliance on threes and the lack of offensive creativity from the coaching staff, but the issues are not that cut and dry. Looking back through the past two games, there were a lot of excellent sets and interesting ideas present, the Cougs just consistently failed to convert efficiently.


Examining The Sets

Staggered Spain Pick-and-Roll

A set that came up a few times over the last week, especially against Oregon, was a staggered Spain pick-and-roll. A Spain pick-and-roll is a double screen where one screen rolls to the rim and the other pops behind the three-point line.

The Cougs’ version of this play is a little different. Instead of having the guard get downhill and have these screens be set flat, they are staggered above the break. The purpose of this play is to get the defense to double the ball-handler and open up the pop man to make a play.

Here, DJ Rodman is the pop man, and the play is run perfectly. He catches the ball, pump fakes to get his man in the air, and gets right to the rim. He misses the layup and is bailed out by a good offensive rebound from Mouhamed Gueye. That missed layup will become a theme as we go through.

Here, they run the play with Andrej Jakimovski as the pop man. Jakimovski is, in theory, the ideal player to run this for. His release is high, the defender will have to jump to keep him from hitting the three, and he has moments as a playmaker out of drives. However, he struggles to slow down and, despite how well this play is run, he ends up barreling into the center and getting called for a charge.

Here, the play is once again ran to perfection, but it doesn’t result in points on the board. Jakimovski is a bit later to set the screen than he was the last time and that helps him create more space and get open. Oregon has to bring a help man to guard Jakimovski, and they leave TJ Bamba open in the corner. The play is run well, they get a good look, but the ball hits back rim and the Cougs have nothing to show for it.

Basic Horns Sets

Horns plays are, pound for pound, the most common plays in the basketball world across all levels. It is a simple set-up that makes a lot of sense for WSU, specifically because of our two-big lineups. Horns is a basic set-up where the two bigs are at each elbow and the floor is spaced around them. There are a lot of different plays that are run out of horns, but the Cougs generally run ball-screen sets out of this alignment.

Here is a horns fist play that exposes some of the issue with running a play like this for the Cougs. No advantage is created on the original ball-screen, so the ball just starts swinging around the perimeter without a particular purpose. Luckily, there is some excellent relocation from Bamba that gets WSU an OK look.

This is an interesting wrinkle that the coaching staff added to the play. Instead of setting up the horns at the elbow, the ball-handler is at the wing and the bigs are over there too. This helps an advantage be created because of how deadly Michael Flowers’ shot is from the wing and there is not a lot of help available. The play is ran well with some intentional spacing and it leads to an emphatic dunk.

The most effective play the Cougs ran out of horns was a twist play. This is where the first screener pops above the break and the player from the opposite elbow comes and sets another screen for the ball-handler. The first screen gets the switch Flowers wants, the defender has to go over the screen which gives Flowers a step, Flowers freezes the big with a hesitation, and the finish is money.

This is the most complex play horns play the Cougs ran. It is a variation of what is commonly called horns down or horns rip, where the ball swings and a shooter ends up getting a dribble handoff with a head of steam. This one has the makings of a solid play, but the two-big spacing hurts it. The paint is just busy here and it makes it difficult to get all the way to the rim. Still, this play generates a solid look that simply isn’t converted.

Chin Series

Chin is an aspect of the fabled Princeton offense that can be seen at almost every level of basketball. It is usually played in 50 spacing, which means all players are standing above the three-point line, and it involves the big playmaking from above the break. The plays run out of chin vary in complexity, but the Cougs keep it simple and tend to run simple drags and dribble handoffs out of chin sets.

This is a simple play that should work to create a great look. The floor is spaced perfectly, the angle of the screen is great, and Jakimovski has a clear advantage. The shot is wildly off target and the advantage created by the set is negated.

The Cougs are intentional about running chin plays mostly with Gueye instead of Abogidi because of Gueye’s superior ball-skills and roll gravity. This play is a perfect example of that. Bamba’s patience in the dribble handoff helps create the advantage and Gueye is able to slip behind the defense on the roll.

Pistol

The final consistent set that the Cougs go to is a pistol set. Pistol is a broad play type that starts with the ball-handler going to the wing. This often can lead to a guard-guard screen or handoff, or a team could bring the big over for simple drag screens. A lot of plays can be run out of pistol and the Cougs take advantage of this by being variable in what they run.

This is the most common pistol look from the Cougs. Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers are generally the two involved; they run a simple dribble handoff, the big first sets an away screen for one guard and then a drag screen for the guard with the ball. Once again, when no advantage is created the ball starts to swing and the team is forced to create something out of nothing.

This is the same general idea, but the handoff never happens, and Roberts goes before the screen can get there. Roberts does get downhill, but his size limits his finishing, and nothing comes of the good play.

The Cougs will sometimes run a pet play out these pistol plays, and it often creates good looks. This is a play commonly called a Valparaiso or a Valpo. This is where the off-ball guard comes off the away screen, but rather than moving to the opposite wing or corner, they turn on a dime and get a fever screen from the big. This is a quick-hitter play that is meant to result in a good look from deep.

Specialized Pick-and-Rolls

The Cougs run a lot of pick-and-roll, but it is not as described by many. There is almost always a lot more going on than a straight high pick-and-roll with everyone else spaced out. The pick-and-roll has taken over the sport of basketball for a reason, and it is still the most effective play for WSU despite the frustration that can be caused with our lack of advantage creation.

The basic set-up for our offense is based around our biggest strengths. WSU has two good ball-handlers and two elite roll men, and the Cougs like to set them up on opposite sides of the court. Here, Flowers tilts the defense just enough with the initial pick-and-roll that Roberts can play with an advantage and get to his shot.

This pick-and-roll variation is a simple one. The roll is complimented with an off ball pindown for Bamba and it likely would have resulted in a jumper or a rip drive if Bamba had caught the ball firmly. Still, the play eventually results in a drag screen for Jakimovski that leads to a solid look even though it didn’t fall.

Something the Cougs have started to do more often is attacking advantaged matchups with pick-and-rolls rather than isolations. Something that is common is a guard calling for an iso whenever a big is switch onto him, but because of our guards’ small statures, this is not always the advantage it could be. However, when they run a pick-and-roll with this advantage, the defense gets out of position. The common move is to switch that action, but the big is not used to being in this situation and the switch can come late or not at all. Here, Flowers rejects the screen, the big is late to switch, and Abogidi gets the easy slam.

Mixing up who is setting the screen is not something the Cougs have done super often yet, but it has worked when they have done it. Here, Noah Williams comes up to set the screen, he slips it, and an advantage is created with the miscommunication.

When the Cougs are playing their smaller lineups with Rodman or Jakimovski at the four, having one of them set the screen in early offense can be effective as well. Here, Jakimovski pops and the defense isn’t prepared, getting him an open look.

Intentional Spacing and Movement

The Cougs offense is at its best when they are intentional about their spacing. The offense bogs down not just because they are not hitting shots, but because they are not moving without the ball. Spacing in basketball is not as simple as having good shooters stand out around the three-point line — it is much more purposeful and consistent than that.

The Cougs prefer to run their offense with one loaded side and one weak side with the action usually taking place on the weak side. Here, Williams relocates by cutting across the floor, Rodman gets a baseline drive, and Flowers is intelligent about finding the weak spot to relocate. The jumper doesn’t fall, but that is an excellent look for WSU’s offense.

When the spacing is bad and no one moves, the Cougs end up with plays like this. They have four guys on the perimeter, but no one is in Abogidi’s line of sight. No advantage is ever created on the play and it ends in a turnover. Had Williams cut and Flowers moved off that cut, there could have been something there.

The more intentional movement and spacing also helps when the Cougs are not running a set play. This WSU team is a poor improvisational one and most possessions in which nothing is run end in a contested three, a turnover, or a bad post-up. If WSU was just a bit more consistent with their off-ball movement, plays like this could be avoided.


What Can Be Done?

This team lacks a player who is a true offensive engine, and it’s safe to say at this point that one is not going to emerge this year. Maybe in the future they can add someone through the transfer portal, but right now, the Cougs have to run their offense with hodge podge as a motor. That is not a complete death nail for this season, though, and there are some adjustments that could be made to keep the offense more consistent.

The major one is to just slow down. The Cougs are already a very slow-paced team, but they tend to get sped up and take bad shots in early offense if they are in a drought. Settling down and always getting into the offense would go a long way.

The spacing should also be more consistent. The team gets killed when they just stand around and make no plays off the ball. Cutting, flashing, and moving along the perimeter would just grease the wheels of the offense a little bit more.

Finally, focusing on the plays that worked best and building an offense around those plays could go a long way. The horns sets have been effective when run properly, the chin plays look good, and the staggered Spain pick-and-roll is a great pet play to pull out when the offense is stagnant. Just being more consistent about running offense and making defenses adjust to the the actions would go a long way to getting WSU through some of their infamous scoring droughts.

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