The Washington State Cougars are playing postseason basketball for the first time since 2012, and it feels great for us fans and the staff and the players. The NIT might not be the ultimate goal, but it is a testament to how far this program has come and the heights it can reach going forward.
The game will start at 8 p.m. PT from Beasley Coliseum. It can be watched on ESPNU or Espn.com (with a cable subscription).
Santa Clara has had an impressive season thus far, led by their 6-foot-6 point guard Jalen Williams. Santa Clara is a deadly and potent offense with a lot of weapons at their disposal and an elite playmaker to run the show. They had a great run though the WCC, losing only to the top teams in that conference, and they are not the slouch some might expect from a mid-major team in the NIT.
Santa Clara Broncos
The Broncos are a great offense, and they are a fun one. They rank 26th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 17th in average possession length. They play fast and make plays, always looking for the easy baskets around the rim. Jalen Williams makes a lot of their offense work with his playmaking, especially in transition, where he is always looking for a pass to get up the floor. They are an elite shooting team by percentage, but they are a fairly low volume three-point team. They shoot 38.8% from deep, but they are 305th in three-point rate. They avoid turnovers well, too, mostly because they concentrate the bulk of their playmaking through one player. They do have some major weaknesses on offense, specifically that they rarely get to the line and are poor on the offensive glass. However, they are still a high-level offensive team with an elite player that can go on stretches that put opponents out of reach.
Santa Clara is a far from prolific defense. They lack a lot of athleticism, and it leads to them struggling in a lot of the more athletic-based aspects of defense. They force almost no turnovers — 282nd in the nation in opponent turnover percentage — and they allow a high three-point percentage and attempt rate, which is indicative of their lack of ability to run opponents off the line. They also allow a good amount of offensive rebounds, though they are not an aggressively bad rebounding team (107th in defensive rebounding percentage). Their greatest strength on defense is that they almost never foul, forcing their opponents to earn every bucket. They are 7th in opponent free throw rate and they are rarely going to bail out small guards with reckless fouls around the rim.
Players to Watch:
Williams is far and away the best player on the Broncos’ roster and a potential target for the Cougs in the transfer portal should he decide to move up to high-major ball. Williams is a true point guard with the size of a wing, making impressive passes and running the pick-and-roll remarkably well for his 6-6 frame. He can also step-out and shoot from deep as well as score for himself around the rim. He is a versatile player on offense and someone who could find himself in the NBA down the line.
P.J. Pipes is Santa Clara’s point guard by size and their go-to isolation scorer. He is a smooth pull-up shooter who hits spot-ups at a high rate and can get to the rim a bit. He is not an elite scorer, but he can get hot and go on runs that make him look like one. His defense is also solid for his size, and he could give Tyrell Roberts or Michael Flowers trouble in this one.
Josip Vrankic is the Broncos’ second leading scorer on a per game basis and a savvy passer to boot. He plays well within the offense, getting touches in the post and around the perimeter alike, and never forcing anything. He can stretch it out a little and hit from deep, but he is most comfortable in the mid-post range and stepping into jumpers from about 18-feet.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers is playing in what could be his last game as a Coug, but the senior could also be playing in the start of a great run to end his collegiate career. Flowers is no doubt already starting to think about professional opportunities next year, overseas or in the NBA G-League, but finishing out his successful career as an NCAA athlete is likely a huge milestone for him. From a good mid-major player at Western Michigan, to an elite one at South Alabama, the expectations for Flowers transition to Pac-12 ball were high, and Flowers delivered. In this game against Santa Clara, the Cougs will once again look to Flowers to be their leader as both a scorer and playmaker, and the senior will be up to the challenge.
Noah Williams is likely going to be tasked with guarding Jalen Williams and he will have his hands full. Jalen is an NBA-caliber player, and Noah will have to be prepared to adjust to the variety of tricks he has in his bag. If Noah can keep Jalen from getting in a rhythm and taking over the game, Santa Clara will have a difficult time adjusting and scoring on the Cougs. However, if Jalen gets himself going and is making plays for others, Santa Clara’s offense can be a buzzsaw.
Efe Abogidi is going to have a major athleticism advantage in this one and he will need to use it to his advantage. The obvious need for him is on defense, where the Cougs will need him to look his best as a rim protector and occasionally mirroring on the perimeter, but he will be important offensively, too. The Cougs are likely going to go to Abogidi in the post, knowing that he is not outmatched with the opponents’ size or strength, and Abogidi is going to need to remain composed, use his quickness to get points, and read where the help might be coming from.
What to Watch For:
Walling off the rim is a major key for WSU in this one. Santa Clara is a great two-point shooting team, but they have struggled around the rim against good interior defenses like Gonzaga and Boise State. This could be a game for WSU to prove their mettle as a defensive team take away what Santa Clara wants to do inside. Abogidi will be huge for this, as his athleticism, length, and timing all pair well to make one of the best rim protectors in this tournament. If Mouhamed Gueye is back and healthy, his size and athleticism should allow him to make a huge impact here as well. Taking away that part of the floor and making the Broncos beat you in other ways is a key to beating them.
Scoring in the flow of the offense will be important for WSU in this one. Santa Clara is not an elite defensive team, but WSU has taken itself out of games against mediocre defenses before. WSU should be able to get the looks they want in pick-and-roll, in post-ups, and with some more designed pet actions, but following the offense and getting the looks it is designed to create is important. The offense bogs down when players get frustrated and try and play outside of a flow, but when the rhythm is there and the Cougs are getting good shots, they can be a deadly scoring team.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs begin a run through the NIT with a win at home?