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What to Watch For: WSU @ SMU

The Cougs look to continue their NIT run against the SMU Mustangs in Dallas.

Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Washington State Cougars have officially won an NIT game and they are looking to continue their postseason run in Dallas. SMU is a fascinating matchup for WSU, as they play incredibly small, with a huge emphasis on spacing and always having multiple ball-handlers on the floor. The Cougs have played well in recent games, and they will need to continue that level of play to beat SMU on their home floor.

The game tips off at 12:00 PM PT and can be watched on ESPN+, which requires a separate subscription from your cable subscription. You can sign up here, if you so desire.

The Mustangs competed well in the AAC this year, finishing second in the conference during regular season play, but falling just short of the NCAA tournament. They competed well with Houston and Memphis throughout the season, and they are far from a slouch despite coming from a Mid-Major conference. They earned their one-seed in the NIT and they are likely to be favored over WSU by most — although both teams are similarly rated at kenpom.com, the site calls this 60/40 in favor of SMU thanks to the Mustangs playing at home.

Southern Methodist Mustangs

Offense:

The Mustangs are a good offense that can reach explosive levels when everything is clicking for them. They are above average in all of the four factors, ranking 96th nationally in effective field goal percentage, 126th in turnover percentage, 180th in offensive rebound percentage, and 47th in free throw rate. They are not elite in anything, but they are good at everything, and it helps them get to their 64th ranking in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. They play at a slightly above average pace, taking an average of 16.9 seconds per possession on offense. They run opportunistically but slow it down when they need to. They are also an efficient shooting team, shooting 35.8% from deep with a 42.4% attempt rate. They also shoot it well from two, despite being undersized. Their only real weakness is that they tend to get blocked and give up live-ball steals at an abnormal rate, but other than that, they are a solid all-around offense.

Defense:

SMU is a surprisingly great defense — ranking 49th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency — and they do that in ways that are similarly unexpected. When imagining a team that plays extreme small ball and has a good defense, it is logical to assume it is because they swarm everything and force a lot of turnovers. This is only partially the case. SMU does swarm a good amount and they like to put two on the ball and force non-playmakers to make plays, but they actually rank 258th in opponent turnover rate. They also give up a lot of offensive rebounds, which is slightly more expected given their size deficiencies.

However, where they excel is in contesting opponent’s shots. Some of this efficacy is likely luck, as a lot of non-area specific field goal numbers are, but it is still their greatest strength. The Mustangs are excellent at scrambling around and contesting every shot. They do give up the 61st highest three-point rate but rank 23rd in opponent three-point percentage, which can almost certainly be chalked up a little bit to luck or favorable competition. SMU is a fascinating defense with an interesting success story this year, but they can are deadly on that end despite the odd aesthetics.

Players to Watch:

Kendric Davis is absolutely electric- and a potential transfer target for WSU this offseason- and he is SMU’s engine on offense. He takes up the majority of their usage — 27.3% — and he can score and pass at a high level. His athleticism pops despite his short stature and he can live in the paint. He gets to the rim with ease and can score or pass from there. He also can hit some absurd shots and if the Cougs let him get hot, he could shoot them out of the game.

Marcus Weathers is the Mustangs’ second leading scorer and their de facto center, despite being only 6’5. He is an impressive rebounder and defender despite his size, able to handle bigger players in the post and switch onto guards and wings. He is also a great interior scorer, athletic enough to finish above the rim, and he combines soft-touch and excellent footwork in the post. He gets a lot of the ugly buckets for SMU as well, getting offensive rebounds and finishing well on the roll. His all-around play makes him formidable on both ends despite being a well-undersized center.

Michael Weathers is the twin brother of Marcus and plays as the power forward for SMU. Michael is the better shooter of the two and the much more active defender. He jumps passes, uses his hands well, and rotates incredibly well at the rim. He is only 6’3, but he averages 1.6 blocks a game — a 5.3% block rate and a 3.4% steal rate. Weathers is an incredibly imposing defender, and he can do it on and off the ball. His ability to do everything on defense helps make SMU’s small-ball defense work.

Washington State Cougars

Players to Watch:

Michael Flowers had a quiet and inefficient game against Santa Clara, but he will still be looked to in big moments as this tournament goes on. Flowers has gotten to be consistently excellent at running the pick-and-roll and making reads out of it. He had five assists against the Broncos, and he handled blitzes and doubles well. He is patient and he waits for help defenders to make a decision before committing to passes and it leads to easy buckets for teammates.

Tyrell Roberts had an impressive game against Santa Clara, and he will look to be the hot hand again in this one. Much like Cal, who Roberts shredded as driver, SMU lacks size on the interior and he should be able to finish at a higher level than he usually does, and the confidence in his shot from distance has only grown as the season has gone on. He has started pulling up with ease and hitting jumpers off-movement, making him a near unstoppable threat from deep when he has it going. If he has it going again, SMU is going to struggle to stop him with the defenders at their disposal.

Efe Abogidi had another defensive masterclass against Santa Clara, posting some highlight blocks and recording five total stocks on the day. It goes underdiscussed how much Abogidi has improved in his sophomore season because it was not in the way we mostly expected. He did not take major jumps in outside efficiency, but the defense has taken a major jump from where it was last year. His block rate has jumped from 5.8% to 9.5% and his steal rate has gone from 1.8% to 2.5%. He has improved incrementally on offense as well, dropping his turnover rate 6% and slightly upping his offensive rebound rate. His overall play on both ends has been huge down the stretch of this season and he will be the main key to WSU making a potential push for the NIT title.

Mouhamed Gueye is presumably now healthy, and despite not doing much against Santa Clara, he is primed for a big game against SMU. Gueye’s mobility on defense will be huge because he is likely to be guarding a 6’3 player if he starts or plays with Abogidi. He is going to have a size advantage to use on the offensive end, and his ability to traverse the floor will make WSU’s defense work against SMU’s small ball. He might have to chase shooters around, close-out on control, and maybe even guard guards in isolation. Gueye has that ability, but he will have to be healthy to truly access it against the Mustangs.

Dishon Jackson is going to present an interesting challenge to SMU, but SMU will also challenge him. It will be an interesting give and take in Jackson’s minutes and how he plays will determine who of WSU or SMU wins those minutes. Jackson will have the obvious size and strength advantage over whoever is guarding him, and that will give him access to easy points in the post, but it also means he will need to stay under control in the post. He will get fronted, get doubled, and deal with flopping whenever he lowers a shoulder, and he will need to avoid getting in foul trouble or getting frustrated down there. Defense will also be an interesting challenge for him. WSU will likely go zone when he is in the game because he cannot guard guys on the perimeter and whether or not WSU’s zone can be efficient remains a question.

Andrej Jakimovski is an interesting guy to think of with this specific matchup. When we think of big guys guarded by smaller guys, we tend to think of post-ups, but Jakimovski obviously gets his buckets in a different way. He had a poor game in the last one, scoring no points against Santa Clara, but he could get some easy looks against SMU. SMU is aggressive on defense, often giving up open looks on the perimeter if teams can move it quickly enough and contests are unlikely to affect Jaki with his 6’8 frame. Jakimovski has gotten good at shooting without a dip in his jumper, making him even more unstoppable by these smaller players if he is knocking down his shot. He will have to keep up with smaller players defensively, but he could be a factor on both ends as well as the boards if he is playing well.

What to Watch For:

Not getting spaced out is the key for WSU’s defense in this one. SMU was able to neutralize great rim-protectors with their spacing before and WSU will need to get a bit creative on defense to make sure they can keep Abogidi and Gueye by the rim. This might be zoning up, and WSU will almost certainly run some zone, but it could also be intentional rotations on the perimeter. College teams rarely properly X-out on the perimeter, but it could be a major key for WSU. If WSU can keep their bigs around the rim, it could be a huge benefit to their defense, but they will have to avoid giving up numerous open shots from deep in the process.

Avoiding the gimmicks is going to be a huge key for WSU in this one. The Mustangs are legitimately good, but they are also a gimmicky team in their scheming. They play small, blitz screens, double all over, and generally muck things up just to try and catch the other team off-guard. It works more often than not, and they have the talent to make it work. Their offense is creative, and they have players that blow up in big games. The Cougs will have to remain calm, handle some emotional swings, and run their offense. WSU is the more talented team, but they will need to avoid the pitfalls that have hurt them before.

Question of the Game:

How will the Cougs match up with SMU’s small ball?

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