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NCAA Basketball: California at Washington State

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What to Watch For: Scouting WSU at Cal

The Cougs look to sweep Cal and secure another win on the road in Berkeley.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars are looking to extend their winning streak to five against the California Golden Bears. The Cougs won a close one when the Golden Bears came to WSU, and they could get another Pac-12 series sweep on the road. They have been playing well on both ends of the floor and they need to continue dominating this stretch before a difficult stretch where they will face Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, and USC.

The game is at 1 p.m. PT from Berkley and can be watched on Pac-12 Network and Pac-12.com (with a cable subscription).

The Golden Bears are in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, most recently getting walloped at home by UW. They are known for their slow pace, but they are just a step behind most of the Pac-12 in terms of talent. However, they are scrappy, and they have made it tough on the Cougs once before this year.

Cal Golden Bears

Offense:

The Golden Bears as a whole are most noted for their slow pace and that is most prevalent on the offensive end. They are 337th in the nation in Adjusted Pace and 344th in Average Possession Length on offense. They take almost 20 seconds per possession, and this is a mix of how much offense they get through on every possession and how slow they are to get into offense. They are not a great overall offense, ranking 164th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and they don’t have many positives in the four factors. They are solid at not turning the ball over, but they struggle at most other aspects on the offensive end.

This is an example of how patient the Cal offense is. They set up a pistol play, then turn it into a chin play, then they run a drag pick-and-roll, they then reverse the ball, and finally run another chin play before truly pushing to score. They get a pretty good look out of this play even though Mouhamed Gueye ended up erasing the shot.

The chin look also allowed Cal to get some good post looks. Here, the Bears run a crosscut up top and Andre Kelly gets position in the post. Even without Kelly — who has missed the past two games and appears set to miss the rest of the season — the Bears have plenty of post players who can get buckets in the post and this play works for that. The Cougs might consider being less aggressive against ball-handlers and forcing on preventing post entries to prevent these plays from succeeding.

The Cougs like to switch ball-screens that involve anyone but the bigs, even if the defenders are Andrej Jakimovski and Tyrell Roberts. The Golden Bears realized this and tried to take advantage of it, but the Cougs defended it well and Cal got little out of it. The Cougs taking advantage of being more athletic does a lot for them. Their bigs are able to rotate for help and recover to the Cal big in the dunker spot.

Cal rarely runs quick-hitters, but when they do, it often involves Jordan Shepherd getting to the rim. Here, they run a pistol play into a horns drag screen. The Cougs handled this well with keeping their shot-blockers deep and close to the rim. Forcing Cal to do nothing but shoot jumpers is a solid path to success against them.

Cal struggled against the WSU zone, but the Golden Bears did run a few plays to beat it. Here, they run a little rubber-band pass across the top to get a rotation and screen for the play initiator to lead to an open downhill drive. The Cougs could stymie this drive if the Abogidi is not fronting Andre Kelly in the post. Kelly’s absence today should make Abogidi’s rim protection even more potent because he won’t have to focus on stopping their leading scorer.

Fronting in the post did work well for the Cougs though. Kelly was excellent in the early part of the game, but Cal couldn’t enter the ball to him when Abogidi was fronting, and it stifled their offense. If the Cougs decide to front again, maybe staying behind in zone and fronting in man would be the most effective plan.

Even against a zone, Kelly could get his, but without his presence the Golden Bears are going to struggle to score inside.

The most successful defense the Cougs ran was their press. Presses are obviously taxing and should be used sparingly, but it threw the Golden Bears way off their rhythm. Here, the Cougs speed Cal up and Michael Flowers funnels the ball-handler right into the shot-blocker.

The Cougs were also able to force a few turnovers with this press. If Cal goes on any sort of run at any point, the Cougs should pull out the press to make them uncomfortable and make them play faster than they are used to.

Defense:

Cal’s defense is a little better than their offense, but it is still not a great defense. They have been the second worst defense in the Pac-12 during conference games and they have some major weaknesses on that end. They are 12th in the conference in forcing turnovers and they are 8th in opponent two-point field goal percentage (indicative of rim protection). They have some strengths, specifically defensive rebounding and avoiding fouls, but they are a beatable defense.

Cal is either going to catch or hard hedge most ball-screens and the Cougs are ready for both. The Coug ball-handlers are comfortable beating the catch by making the pocket pass or blowing by the big. Against hard hedges, the Cougs have gotten good at making the extra pass and running through the offense.

WSU effectively beat the hard hedge by running north screens with Andrej Jakimovski on the floor. Jakimovski was hot and the Golden Bears learned to be aware of where he was. The Cougs used that to their advantage with these plays, where two players guard the ball, Gueye slips, and the help defender is forced to choose between guarding Jakimovski from behind the line or Gueye at the rim.

The same play worked even when Flowers rejected the ball-screen. Flowers still has two guarding him and the timing between Gueye and Jakimovski is perfect, creating the dunk.

Despite Cal’s usual excellence on the defensive boards, the Cougs still attacked the offensive glass with authority, grabbing nearly 40% of their own misses in the first matchup. The Coug staff trusts their bigs to find the ball and make the right play once boarding it. WSU is simply way more athletic, and it worked in their favor here.

Cal just generally does not have the size and athleticism to protect the rim at a high level and the Cougs were able to take advantage of that. On this play, the catch isn’t where it’s supposed to be, and Flowers gets right to the rim.

Cal also had some major miscommunication issues against the Cougs last time. They were poor in transition defense, and it led to a lot of open looks for the Cougs. Specifically, Cal lost track of Jakimovski a lot and Jakimovski got a lot of open looks from deep because of it.

This is another example of that. Cal is over eager in help at times, and they leave one of the best shooters in the Pac-12 wide open because of it.

Cal struggles whenever a play is broken, and they are not set. In situations like transition and off of offensive boards, Cal just breaks down and gives up open looks.

Players to Watch:

Grant Anticevich is the most interesting player on the Cal roster — who plays big minutes, anyway — from a pro perspective. Anticevich is a big wing who has his moments defensively, can shoot it all right, and can even create some looks for himself. He is the glue guy for the Bears on both ends.

Jordan Shepherd is the leading scorer for Cal, and he is their go-to guy when they need a bucket. He is comfortable getting to the rim and pulling up for jumpers. He is not a great passer, and he can force shots, but his overall scoring is impressive.

Jalen Celestine is a 6’6 sophomore with ball-skills and one of the highest upside players on the roster. Celestine and freshman Sam Alajiki are the most interesting long-term pro bets, but Celestine is the better of the two as a current contributor. He can stretch the floor and has moments as a driver when scoring for himself.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch:

Michael Flowers has received the nickname “Captain,” and for good reason. He has taken the reigns of this team and he fulfills that role well. When the Cougs need a good offensive possession, they go to him, and it has started to work out often. He is an excellent passer, and he just runs the offense well. Against Cal, they tilted their defense towards him a lot and he was able to pick them apart with his passing.

Efe Abogidi has totaled nine blocks during this Coug win streak and it has been an impressive turn for him. He looks almost absurdly bouncy yet again and the timing on his blocks remains perfect. Abogidi and Jakimovski stepping up their play have been the biggest reasons for the Cougs jump in overall efficacy and 40 minutes of Abogidi or Gueye on the floor is hell for the opposing team’s offense.

TJ Bamba looked to be the breakout sophomore for the team early in the year, but he has been someone surpassed by Jakimovski in that category. Bamba — who recently missed a game with a knee injury — has not put together a string of great performances, but he still has his moments. Cal does not have players that can match Bamba’s athleticism, and he could have a huge game if the knee is right and he is focused on getting downhill. That’s a big caveat, though, as he didn’t look healthy against Stanford.

What to Watch For:

The Cougs using their size and athleticism on the interior was the main catalyst for their win over Cal in the Palouse and it will have to be again on the road. The Cougs were able to cover drives and stay attached to their post players and keeping that intensity up will make the defense work.

Staying consistent down the stretch was so refreshing to see against Stanford. The Cougs have had their notable struggles in the clutch, and it feels like this team is turning the corner. They were able to stay steady and withstand the punches that Stanford threw. They will have to do the same against Cal if this matchup resembles the last one.

Question of the Game:

Will the Cougs block more than 6 shots in this one?

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