The Washington State Cougars have lost four straight and it seems like the hopes of a potential tourney run are dwindling. However, the Cougs are still in an interesting position to make a late-season push. They play UW twice, a beatable team that is currently above them in the Pac-12 standings; Oregon State twice, one of the worst teams in Pac-12 history; and Oregon once again, another team they are competing for the fourth seed in the Pac-12 with.
It all starts this afternoon against USC, a beatable team that could be the best win on WSU’s resume. The game will tip off at 4:30 p.m. PT from the Galen Center in Los Angeles. The game can be watched on Fox Sports 1 or Foxsports.com (with a cable subscription).
The Trojans have been a model of consistency under Andy Enfield and this season has been no different. They had a major upset over UCLA without Isaiah Mobley, and they’ve had some tough losses against Stanford, but other than that it’s been business as usual for USC. They are a great two-way team, and they are poised to make a run come March. Their size, positional passing, and all-around scoring mix together to make the Trojans one of the best teams in the nation.
The Trojans are an almost surprisingly great offense. They rank 39th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they are 2nd in the Pac-12 in offense during conference play. Their greatest strengths on that end are their elite offensive rebounding and how effectively they limit turnovers. They are the 2nd best offensive rebounding team in the conference, and they crash the glass hard. Everyone on the roster has the latitude to attack the glass on both ends and their size can make them overwhelming there. They are also a great passing team, ranking 79th in the nation in assists per field goal made and they manage to remain 62nd in the nation in turnover percentage. That’s a rare combination and it makes them a deadly half-court offense.
USC’s best playmaker is Isaiah Mobley, their 6’10 starting forward, so they run a lot of chin sets to take advantage of his playmaking. Chin is meant to put the big at the top of the key and the actions are run around them. This is a play that doesn’t run the way they want it to, but it does lead to a shot thanks to USC’s ability to drive and finish.
This is a chin play that runs into a downscreen. It is set up with an away screen set by Mobley, making it seem like he is not the focal point of the play, but he still gets the opportunity to make a play from above the break.
The Trojans also like to run isolations for Mobley, even out of these chin sets. The chin play sets up a mid-post isolation for Mobley and he’ll even try to go to work on elite defenders like Mouhamed Gueye.
This is another Mobley isolation, but this one is set-up by a pick-and-pop play. Mobley slips the screen to try and beat WSU’s catch in the pick-and-roll. He is comfortable attacking from the perimeter both to score and playmake for others.
USC does not run a ton of off-ball sets when they are in these isolations. They set the isolations up with movement — here, it’s a cross-screen at the elbow, but the players don’t move much while Mobley is posting up.
This is one of the more interesting plays the Trojans run. They set up a guard-guard screen with a big in the dunker spot. They have Mobley close to the action to run an away screen for the guard that sets the screen. The Trojans have a lot of options out of this set, but the dunker spot big is just a bit too close to the driver and it allows Efe Abogidi to muck it all up.
USC is not the highest paced team on paper, as they are 145th in the nation in offensive possession length and 6th in the conference in the same metric, but they do run quite a bit. When in the half-court, their possessions are long and deliberate, but they will push the pace when the opportunity presents itself. They are not Cal, Stanford, or WSU in how they achieve their slow pace.
USC’s defense is similarly strong, though it is surprisingly the worse end of the floor for them. The Trojans are 49th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and 5th in the conference during Pac-12 play. They are a different type of defense than a UCLA. UCLA was solid all-around, but USC has massive strengths and weaknesses. USC’s greatest strength is their rim protection. They are 57th in the nation in block percentage and are second in the nation at opponent two-point field goal percentage. They make every shot at the rim difficult, and they contest two-point jumpers well too. They are about average at preventing offensive rebounds, but their biggest weakness is that they do not force many turnovers at all. They are 333rd in the country in opponent turnover percentage, so there is a world where WSU could compete by winning the shot volume game.
USC catches most of the middle ball-screens. Oftentimes they fully drop the big in pick-and-roll and chase the ball-handler over screens. They want to force guards to drive all the way into the paint and finish over their bigs.
When guarding the post, USC often likes to do a ¾ front in the post. They try to make every pass difficult and this is one of the few areas where they create some turnovers.
USC pulled out a very successful zone against WSU in their last matchup and it messed up WSU’s offensive flow. They do a great job preventing passes into the middle of the floor and they force guards to beat their zones with drives and shooting.
The zone can be beat if a guard can get penetration and make plays from the middle of the floor. Here, Tyrell Roberts gets by the initial line of defense and finds Mouhamed Gueye for the nice slam.
Players to Watch:
Isaiah Mobley is the one player on the USC likely that could hear his name called in the NBA Draft come June. Mobley is an interesting player because his skillset is unique for his size. He can dribble, pass, score inside, and even step out and hit some jumpers. He is not a great athlete, but his positioning on defense is perfect, and if he can shoot at a high level, he could find himself a role in the league.
Drew Peterson is a fascinating player, and he never fails to draw my attention when I watch USC. He is 6’9 but plays like a hybrid guard-wing that can do damage from everywhere on the court. He is most effective scoring on smaller players in the post, with turnarounds and touch shots that are tough to defend. Peterson is also shooting 41.8% from deep, though mostly on wide-open looks, and his passing is elite for his size. He can simply do it all and, at his height, that is a tantalizing skillset.
Reese Dixon-Waters is a redshirt freshman that has seen his role grow a lot as the season has gone on. According to Kenpom, he has played 30% of USC’s minutes at shooting guard, despite not generally starting or taking on a super high usage. What interests me with Dixon-Waters is his defense. He has a 2.59% steal rate and he pops when guarding the opposing team’s ball-handler. He glides around screens, picks pockets, and is tenacious. He is strong and quick, and he pushes opponents off their spot with ease. His offense is limited as of now, but there is upside there as he is shooting 43.2% from deep on mostly wide-open shots from the corner.
Max Agbonkpolo is my favorite long-term NBA prospect on the Trojans. Agbonkpolo is a junior that plays a limited role, but he is great at filling his role. He is a great athlete and finisher, slashing to the rim against closeouts and cutting at a high level as well. His defense is also impressive, tallying a 2.66% block rate and a 1.85% steal rate. His two-way game is interesting for a 6’9 forward and he flashes moments as a ball-handler that intrigue long-term.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Andrej Jakimovski is going to need to play a big role for the Cougs if they are going to upset the Trojans. His head-turning hot streak was followed by a long stretch where he has dealt with an injury and has struggled to reach that level again. He scored in double digits again against UCLA, and the defense has looked better in the past couple games, but he is still yet to put it all together. He is still shooting 41.6% from deep, but he has fallen from his high of 48.1%. He can still be a vital player for this team and the highest ceiling lineups have him in them. His shooting helps make a lot of actions work and his size on defense will be important against USC. If Jakimovski has another big game, shooting efficiently from deep, grabbing boards, and playing solid defense, the Cougs will have a chance to beat USC.
DJ Rodman has struggled quite a bit during WSU’s four game losing streak, but they will need him to step-up against USC. USC is long, tall, and physical and WSU will need Rodman to matchup against some of the Trojans’ big forwards and wings. There is an argument to be made that Rodman should be starting for the Cougs in this one, as his spacing helps make the offense work and his defense on Drew Peterson would be useful. He has also shown some growth as a driver and passer that could help the Cougs’ offense when it gets stagnant.
Mouhamed Gueye held Isaiah Mobley to his worst game of the season in the last matchup between the Cougs and the Trojans. Gueye’s length, lateral athleticism, and feel make him the ideal defender on Mobley. Focusing on shutting down the Trojans’ offensive focal points — Mobley and Peterson — would turn this game into a rock fight and give WSU a chance to upset USC. Gueye is also an important offensive cog, being the most effective roll-man and transition big on the team and helping give the Cougs’ a place to go in the pick-and-roll. USC deep drops their bigs and this could open up some lobs and post duck-ins for Gueye to rack up some points. Gueye will need to have a big game on both ends for the Cougs to pull out of LA with a win.
What to Watch For:
Just running our sets and trusting the offense could go a long way for WSU in this one. The Cougs too often forego their offense, rejecting screens, taking early clock pull-ups, and pushing in transition even without numbers. When the Cougs run their offense properly, they are able to manufacture some good looks and the Cougs will need those open shots to compete. Even when shots aren’t falling and players start to get frustrated, the Cougs should trust in their offense and play at their pace.
Forcing contested jumpers is the most important key for the Cougs. In this game. They are a great rim-protecting team, but many teams make the mistake of fully packing the paint against the Trojans and giving them wide-open looks from deep. Peterson, Dixon-Waters, and Mobley are not knockdown shooters, but they will hit them with daylight. The Cougs should trust their bigs to be the rim-protectors and force the Trojans to take tough jumpers from the mid-range. USC can hit these shots, but it will keep their offense inefficient and give the Cougs a chance down the stretch.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs mix up the lineups to match USC’s height?