The Washington State Cougars took care of business yesterday against the Cal Golden Bears, but now is where the real test begins, as the Cougars take on second-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
The game will tip off from Las Vegas at 6 p.m. PT and can be watched on the Pac-12 Network or Pac-12.com (with a cable subscription). The Cougs are currently 9-point underdogs to the Bruins, according to DraftKings.
WSU had a disappointing performance in the only game they played against the Bruins, but they have it in them to be competitive and potentially put together a run for the ages. The Bruins ended their season on a three-game win streak, and they enter the Pac-12 Tournament looking to go on a run and improve their seed in March Madness. They are an elite team on both ends of the floor, and they have the talent to compete for a championship this season.
The Bruins are the 15th ranked offense in the country via adjusted offensive efficiency, and they excel in all of the four factors. They are a near perfect blend of shot-making and shot volume, allowing them to get a lot of good shots throughout the course of the game.
They almost never turn the ball over, ranking 5th in the nation in turnover percentage and they are a great offensive rebounding team, ranking 56th in the country. They almost always win the shot volume game, and they are great at knocking those shots down. They rank 149th nationally in effective field goal percentage, which is a little lower than many would expect, but this is because they do take a lot of difficult shots. Their lack of turnovers is also combined with a low number of assists, which means they are going to get fewer good looks through high-level passing. They also don’t have players that generate a ton of easy rim pressure to create good looks around the rim. They rely a lot on tough shots that they have the talent to hit.
In their game against WSU, the Bruins excelled at hitting shots. They had their third highest effective field goal percentage in any of their games and they could not miss from deep. They shot 50% from the three-point line on one of their highest attempt rates of the season. The Cougs had no answer for UCLA’s outside shooting and it showed in the final score. WSU did hold UCLA to around their average percentage from two, but they still shot over 50% from the field and it allowed them to blow WSU out.
The one thing WSU did well against UCLA was turn them over. UCLA is not at all a turnover-prone team, but the Cougs got them to turn it over at a 23.5% rate, their highest turnover rate of the season. Forcing those turnovers and forcing tougher shots are the major keys for WSU on defense.
UCLA is an even better defense than they are an offense. They rank 11th in the nation Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they excel in the four main factors. The shot volume game is huge for them on defense as well, as they rebound well (56th in opponent offensive rebound percentage) and force turnovers at a high level (84th in opponent turnover percentage). They contest shots well too, ranking 60th in opponent effective field goal percentage. They have a lot of size and length, and they make every shot difficult, whether it be on the perimeter or in the paint.
UCLA’s defense gave WSU fits in their matchup earlier this season. The Bruins held WSU to their third worst offensive efficiency on the season and the Cougs just couldn’t get anything going. WSU shot only 23.3% from deep, their second worst of the season, and 34.8% from two, their sixth worst of the season. Their overall play on offense was horrendous and WSU will need to crack the code a bit if they want to compete in this one. It will start, as it often does for WSU, with knocking down their shots from outside and playing in space as a team.
Players to Watch:
Jaime Jaquez Jr. is the best NBA prospect on the Bruins’ roster and the leader of the team in general. He is the second leading passer on the team, the second leading rebounder, and the second leading scorer on the team. He finishes around the rim at a high level, and he can stretch the floor and hit from deep too. His defensive impact is perhaps the most important piece of his game though. His overall play makes him one of the best and most impactful players in the country.
Johnny Juzang is UCLA’s leading scorer, and he can be an absolutely electric at times. He hits tough shots like almost no one else in the country. He is completely unbothered by contests and his jumper is silky smooth. He loves to get his work in the mid-range, running off pindowns and stagger screens, comfortably getting to his jumpers. He can take over a game with his scoring.
Jules Bernard is my personal favorite player on UCLA, and he is the glue guy on their roster. He can do a lot of different things on both ends that helps the Bruins win. He can space the floor, though he can be streaky from deep, and he can pass at a high level for his size. His defense also goes a long way, covering up for a lot of the issues that Juzang and Tyger Campbell present on that end.
Tyger Campbell is the consummate point guard, exactly the type of guy a contending team would want to run the offense for them. He is a low turnover, high assist guy who simply runs a steady pick-and-roll and competes at a high level. His passing and all-around leadership are huge for the Bruins’ offense. He has also started to knock down shots from outside this season and he brings value on defense with his awareness and activity.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers had a somewhat quiet game against Cal, but he was the best player on the floor at almost all times. He hardly missed from the field, shooting 60%, and he was the steady hand guiding the offense. He will need to come up big in this one, making plays for others and knocking down shots. He struggled against UCLA in the one game they played this year, and he must take a step up from how he played if WSU is going to pull off the upset. The Bruins can be exploited in pick-and-roll if Flowers is playing at his pace.
Tyrell Roberts had his best game of the season against Cal, scoring a super-efficient 14 points. The difference between the usual Roberts we see and how he played against the Golden Bears is that Roberts was consistently getting to the rim and making plays. He has the burst and athleticism to get to the rim, but he rarely does it because he struggles to finish. However, with the spacing WSU was playing with and the efficacy of Efe Abogidi maneuvering the paint, a lot of lanes for finishing opened up. He also knocked down jumpers at the rate we expected, and it will be huge for him to continue knocking them down from deep.
Noah Williams’ defense is going to be huge in this one. He is likely to guard Johnny Juzang and contesting his shots and getting through screens against him is vital for WSU to compete. Him hitting his shots is going to be vital, too; he knocked down shots against Oregon and getting spacing and some points from him on offense is a major key in this one.
Efe Abogidi had an awesome game against Cal and WSU will need him to play at that level again against the Bruins. Abogidi’s defense is huge and locking down UCLA’s posts and protecting the rim is the best path to success for WSU in this one. Abogidi is definitely a momentum player, and he can swing the momentum of a game with some big blocks and big dunks. If Flowers and Roberts are hitting from deep, there should be some openings for Abogidi to roll to the rim and finish. The Cougs will need Abogidi to wreak havoc on both ends.
What to Watch For:
Contesting every shot is the major key on defense for the Cougs. UCLA will win big if they get a plethora of open looks — they are simply too skilled to miss too many. UCLA is going to hit their fair share of contested shots too, especially Juzang and Jaquez, but WSU will have to avoid getting lazy even if their good defense is not rewarded with a miss. Being locked in every possession and forcing UCLA to beat the Cougs exclusively on tough shots is huge.
Taking away the rim is another huge defensive key for the Cougs. UCLA is not a great rim finishing team, but they will capitalize on open looks and defensive breakdowns with layups and dunks. The Cougs will need Abogidi and a hopefully healthy Mouhamed Gueye to keep the restricted area a no-go zone for UCLA’s offense. This won’t always show up as blocked shots but contesting everything around the rim and forcing UCLA to finish over the trees every time is huge.
Getting lucky is, in the end, the biggest key for the Cougs in this one. Beating teams that are solidly better and more talented than does not happen unless there is some luck. The Cougs will need to hit some tough shots and UCLA is going to have miss similar looks. Playing perfect is important but getting lucky is even more important.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs begin their Cinderella run with one of the biggest upsets in school history?