The Washington State Cougars are badly in need of a bounce back and it could come at home against WSU’s cross-state rivals in the front half of the Apple Cup series. The Cougs have lost five straight, mostly to the top teams in the conference, but their season is far from over. The Huskies are one game ahead of the Cougs in the Pac-12 standings and the Cougs will face them on both Wednesday and Sunday this week.
Tonight’s game will tip-off from Beasley Coliseum at 8 p.m. PT and it can be watched on ESPNU or ESPN.com (with a cable subscription).
The Huskies are in the midst of their own losing streak, also losing to the top three teams in the conference. They have been surprisingly effective in Pac-12 play despite being 133rd in Kenpom’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin and losing to teams like Northern Illinois, Winthrop, and Utah Valley during their non-conference games. UW also is hoping for a chance to get the four seed in the Pac-12, and that starts with the series against Wazzu.
The Huskies’ offense can best be described as unoriginal. There is not a lot of scheming going on, and they tend to rely on isolation plays or simple pick-and-rolls to get their buckets. They are 198th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, but they are 6th in the conference during conference play. Their numbers are likely skewed a bit by their bad early-season losses, but the top-half ranking in the Pac-12 is also likely a bit misleading — they will play the top two defenses (WSU and UCLA) three times in the next week after scoring a paltry 0.77 points per possession against the Bruins last week.
UW is a hard team to evaluate because they are not good at all on paper, but they find a way to win. They are 334th in effective field goal percentage, 300th in three-point percentage, 332nd in two-point percentage, and 263rd in free throw percentage. Those shooting splits are on par with Oregon State, which looks like one of the worst teams in conference history.
UW’s offense does have some strengths; they don’t turn the ball over much at all, though that is mostly because they rarely pass the ball, ranking 337th in assist rate, and they also get fouled a lot, ranking 51st in the nation in free throw rate. They are a solid, not great, offensive rebounding team.
Their offense’s biggest strength, however, is one that does not show up much in stats. They are an incredibly resilient offense. They hit big buckets in big moments and their offense is somewhat resistant to defenses’ adjustments because they are so isolation heavy and dependent on Terrell Brown Jr. to create for himself basically every time down the floor. They are a beatable offense that is far from elite, but it can lead to nail-biting if you have stop them in the clutch.
This is the stereotypical UW offensive possession. They don’t run a real play, but there is some movement. The ball swings, every guard prods to see if they can get an advantage, and eventually someone drives. It leads to what looks like a bad shot, but it goes in despite the contest.
UW is not a great passing team, and it shows in this possession. They tend to make the obvious reads only after their scoring options have been extinguished. They run a similar set to the last play here, swinging the ball until someone can get a step on a defender. They get a couple steps into a drive, but it’s cut off and it leads to a turnover.
They will sometimes run some drag screen or high ball-screen plays as well. The spacing for UW’s offense is not great and it leaves the lane clogged for the majority of their drives.
UW will also go small to try and space teams out and open up their drives, but most of their guards and wings are iffy shooters as well and there is still plenty of help in the lane on most of their drives.
UW is well known for its defensive scheme at this point, a form of the infamous Syracuse 2-3 matchup zone. UW does play it with a bit more aggression than Syracuse, swarming many ball-handlers and trying to prevent easy passes, but it follows the basic principles of any 2-3 zone. However, the Huskies have been more willing to go man-to-man throughout the course of this year and the multiple looks have helped them muck some things up for the opponents.
The Huskies are 94th nationally in Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, but only 9th in the Pac-12 during conference games. They are team marked by major strengths and major weaknesses. They force a lot of turnovers — second in the conference — and they have gotten good at not fouling. However, they allow a lot of offensive rebounds (354th nationally in opponent offensive rebound percentage) and they are known for allowing a lot of good looks at the rim and from deep (10th in the conference in opponent 3P% and 11th in opponent 2P%).
Everyone is familiar with the zone at this point, and this is a good look at how the Cougs will likely try to beat it. While playing two bigs could be effective defensively, playing a bit smaller with Andrej Jakimovski spacing the floor and Noah Williams being the one flashing in the high post would increase the passing on the floor and open lobs and dump-offs to the big roaming the baseline.
In both man and zone, UW is likely to double the post in an effort to create havoc. It will be important for WSU’s bigs to stay composed, handle the double, and make timely passes to open players.
When UW goes small, they tend to play man-to-man defense, so they are not relying on 6’7 Emmitt Matthews Jr to be the rim-protector. However, this lack of rim-protection gives up a lot of rip drives to the rim with no one back to help.
Players to Watch:
Terrell Brown Jr is one of the top scorers in the Pac-12, averaging 21.8 points per game on 47/22/76 shooting splits. Brown is 6’3 but plays as a score-first shooting guard rather than a true point guard. He is not a great shooter, but he is a good athlete who can get into the lane and finish with a variety of floaters, scoop finishes, and even some highlight slams. He also has his moments scoring in the mid-range, hitting tough shots whenever the Dawgs need him too.
Emmitt Matthews Jr., a transfer from West Virginia, is the closest thing to an NBA prospect on the UW roster. The Tacoma native is a 6’7 wing who fills the classic 3-and-D archetype for the Huskies. It is hard to evaluate just how good his defense is, as he plays in the classic Mike Hopkins zone, but he played great on-ball defense at WVU. He shoots 35% from deep on almost four attempts a game and he is an impressive vertical athlete. He is the second leading scorer on Washington and the senior could have a big game in Pullman — if he plays. He sat out the second half against UCLA on Saturday with a suspected concussion.
Cole Bajema, another transfer on this roster — this time from Michigan — is a guy I thought could find himself in the NBA down the line. The 6’7 wing played at Lynden Christian in high school and flashed high-level shooting as well as interesting ball skills for his size. However, Michigan was an odd fit for him, and UW is no better. He is a player that needs to play on a team with an offensive system, which UW does not have. Still, a 6’7 wing who can shoot and dribble is always going to catch glances as a potential player at the next level.
PJ Fuller is yet another interesting transfer playing for UW. He is one of the most electric high school players I have ever seen in person, and he still flashes that occasionally in college. He is a 6’4 guard/wing with elite athletic pop and shift as a ball-handler. The shot comes and goes, and his decision making has never been a strong suit, but he is a walking highlight. Whether it be dunks or crossing someone into another dimension, Fuller is always a fun watch.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Noah Williams always seems to have great games against UW and this is going to be the most important Apple Cup of his WSU career. The Cougs are obviously in the midst of a huge skid, but they are still competitive, and UW is right there with them. Williams has had his moments, but he has yet to recapture the magic of last season thus far. However, UW presents a unique opportunity for him with their zone. If the Cougs go small and run Williams as the de facto four on offense, he will get the ball where he excels most: at the elbows. His work in those areas remains elite and with elite finishers like Mouhamed Gueye and Efe Abogidi in the dunker spot, it could be hell for UW to guard.
Michael Flowers is going to need to shoot how we all know he can in this one. There is a strong correlation between Flowers’ scoring efficiently and the Cougs winning basketball games, and that doesn’t look like it will change this season. Flowers shot efficiently against USC, the only efficient game of his during the losing streak, and that was a big reason it was close. UW allows a lot of threes and Flowers could get hot from out there if he is getting good looks. The key for him will be limiting the tough shots and looking to move the ball until and open shot is created.
Tyrell Roberts has been the go-to zone buster for Kyle Smith this season and that is unlikely to change against WSU. He is able to beat zones when receiving a swing pass against a tilted defense and using his burst to break the first line of defense. His passing in these situations will need to be crisp, as the help big will be forced to choose between him and a rolling bigman, forcing Roberts to be decisive. This could be a huge game for Roberts if he is playing within himself and not trying to do too much. His shooting and burst are going to be huge if the Cougs want to beat UW’s defense.
Andrej Jakimovski finally had the bounce back we have been hoping for, against USC. He had a double-double, shot 42% from deep, and his defense looked good once again. His brand of play is specifically beneficial against UW because they allow a solid number of threes and a ton of offensive boards. This could be another double-double night for Jakimovski and it could be an efficient night from deep as well. Spreading out UW’s defense is a huge key and it will allow Williams, Roberts, and Gueye plenty of room to work.
What to Watch For:
Locking down on defense is the major key for the Cougs in this one. WSU is the number one ranked defense in the Pac-12 during conference play, and UW is not a particularly good offense. Forcing UW to take and make tough shots, make decisions they are uncomfortable with, and keeping them from scoring around the rim will all go a long way to helping WSU come out with a win.
Kenpom gods, hear our prayers. This is the ultimate matchup of stats versus results, and it would be nice for the stat gods to be on the Cougs’ side for this one. UW ranks 133 in Kenpom’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin, while the Cougs rank 43. The Huskies have more bad losses and just as few good wins, but they hang around the Cougs because they are elite in close games. There is something to be said for clutch wins being important, but there is also something to be said about many clutch stats being hard to parse, especially during the small sample size of the college basketball season.
The Cougs are the better team on paper, and this could be a surprisingly dominant win, but if it is close, it is hard to trust the Cougs to overcome their bad luck in tight contests.
Question of the Game:
How will the Cougs handle UW’s zone?