The Washington State Cougars continue their March run through the NIT as they head to Provo to take on the BYU Cougars on Wednesday. WSU has a lot of momentum right now, beating Santa Clara at home and SMU on the road, both comfortably. Everything seems to be clicking for WSU, but they are about to face their biggest challenge of this postseason. WSU is playing well on both ends of the ball, but especially on defense, as the Cougars have posted two of their best defensive games of the season in the NIT.
The game will tip off at 6 p.m. PT and can be watched on ESPN2 or ESPN.com (with a cable subscription).
BYU also has had two straight solid wins, beating Long Beach State by 11 and Northern Iowa by 19. The Cougars were a contender for the NCAA tournament, but some tough losses and a lack of high-level wins kept them out of it. BYU is talented and well-coached, ranking 43rd in adjusted efficiency margin, according to Kenpom. They are a good offense and a good defense, and they pushed the best teams in the WCC frequently this year, narrowly losing to Saint Mary’s and San Francisco down the stretch of the season.
Brigham Young Cougars
BYU is a good offense that is propelled by their litany of scorers and playmakers. Mark Pope runs a somewhat NBA-style system that takes advantage of their pull-up shooting, overall shooting, and solid decision-makers. They rank 41st in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. That ranking is mostly carried by their high-level shooting and shot making. They rank 82nd in effective field goal percentage, 88th in three-point percentage, and 97th in two-point percentage. They are a balanced offense, scoring plenty from all three levels, and not playing too fast or too slow. Their overall balance and unpredictability is what makes them such a potent offense.
BYU runs an open offense, allowing their guards the freedom to make plays and decisions. Plays flow into one another without the need for them to be called by the coach. They have specific spacing principles, and their guards play well out of the movement and freedom involved.
This play is more of a set play than much of BYU’s offense, but it shows what they will go to when they need a bucket. Alex Barcello is their primary scorer, and they will run plays that get him his looks in the mid-range. This is a staggered drag screen that is then flipped, often called a fever screen, back to the middle. It leads to a good look that Barcello is adept at knocking down.
This is another look at the versatility of the BYU offense. The Cougars originally set-up a weak side drag screen, but they flip the floor and instead run a staggered drag on the opposite side of the floor. WSU runs a similar looking Spain pick-and-roll as this, where one player rolls and another one pops, and it results in a wide-open three here.
BYU matches their efficient offense with an efficient defense. They rank 56th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, but their defensive strengths are less balanced than their offensive ones. They are one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers, ranking 333rd in opponent turnover percentage. They also foul a good amount, ranking 208th in opponent free throw rate. Their greatest strength on defense is that they end plays with the best of them, ranking 7th in defensive rebound rate.
The greatest contributor to their defense is their opponents’ effective field goal percentage, which, as mentioned in the SMU preview, can be indicative of luck rather than scheme or skill. Opponents shoot 48.8% from two against BYU — 145th in the nation — which is about average. It is indicative of a team that does not have great rim protection but does contest shots. However, opponents shoot 68.7% from the free throw line against them, which is almost purely luck (though maybe a bit of that elevation-related home court advantage). They also rank 33rd in opponent 3-point percentage, which is once again, likely somewhat based on luck. They do contest threes well, but they are still likely a slightly worse defense than that 56th ranking nationally and WSU could expose that if they are firing on all cylinders.
Despite having undersized bigs, BYU plays defense like they have seven footers at the rim, and it tends to work for them. They drop their bigs in a deep hedge and often chase opposing guards over the screen. They are into the math equation defense that many NBA defenses are: force teams to take and make mid-range jumpers and tough finishes at the rim and hopefully never give up and open three or layup. This defensive style is popular in the league for a reason and it works for BYU quite a bit.
They are aggressive chasing over screens, especially Barcello. Their guards almost always stay attached to the ball-handler and they like to prevent rhythm pull-up threes as much as possible.
Finally, BYU is a bit small and there is a chance WSU can create some good looks in the post. Mouhamed Gueye and Dishon Jackson will be the tallest players on the court at all times and good shots will be available to them if they use that size.
Players to Watch:
Alex Barcello is BYU’s best player and a potential draft pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The name of the game for Barcello is shooting and he get to his shots in a variety of different ways. He is comfortable pulling up, which forces defenders over screens, and hitting shots off-the-ball. Barcello shoots 42.6% from deep on six attempts a game, and efficiency to volume ratio that is a rarity, even in the modern game built around three-point jumpers. Barcello also does a lot of the playmaking for his team, using his gravity as a shooter to open up easy looks for roll-men or other shooters on the perimeter. Overall, Barcello was one of the better players in the WCC this season and he will be the focus of the WSU defense in this one.
Te’Jon Lucas is the second leading scorer for the Cougars and the go-to playmaker on the squad. While Barcello does a lot of his work off-the-ball, using his shooting as a weapon, Lucas is the main pick-and-roll operator and facilitator on the roster. He is not a great shooter, but he excels at getting into the lane and making plays for others — and he is an opportunistic scorer when the moment arises. He also defends at a high-level and he will give Mike Flowers and Tyrell Roberts trouble in this one.
Fousenyi Traore is only 6’6, but he plays as the de facto center for BYU. He is a springy athlete, and he is strong for his size. He is able to push bigger players around for position the post and spring over them for rebounds. Traore is not a shooter by any means, but he is an efficient scorer, shooting 60% on two-point field goals, mostly in the paint. He is a great rebounder and an active defender in BYU’s system.
Caleb Loehner is maybe the best long-term NBA prospect for the Cougars. The 6’8 forward was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school and his game is full of interesting flashes. He is a powerful athlete off of two feet and he is strong for his size. He flashes touch and footwork in the post as well as the occasional jumper from deep. His defense is also a plus, as he acts as a good secondary rim-protector and is often guarding the primary matchup in the post. Loehner still has a ways to develop, but his game is interesting and the upside is there for him.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers had a great game against SMU and his importance to the team was demonstrated once again. He was key to quelling the run that SMU went on, handling the pressure they brought to the ball and settling the offense down. His 7-of-7 from the charity stripe underscores just how solid he was when the team needed it. He will have a tough time against BYU, as Lucas and Barcello are both good defenders who make opposing guards work to get good looks. Flowers will have to remain steady as a scorer and playmaker for the Cougs to beat BYU.
Efe Abogidi extended his streak to three straight games with three blocks, the first time in his career since he did it against Prairie View A&M, Northwestern State, and Arizona last season. His defense has been incredible down the stretch of the season, and he is reminding people why he was an NBA draft prospect entering this season. He looks to have fully overcome the knee issues that plagued him entering this season and is taking advantage of his bounce on both ends. He used his size well on offense against SMU as well, scoring 12 points in a variety of ways, including a monster slam that became the ESPN Top Play of the week. He will need to the keep the defense up against BYU, taking away the paint and forcing their bigs to score in uncomfortable ways is huge to slowing down their offense.
TJ Bamba had a somewhat quiet and inefficient games against Santa Clara and SMU, but he played 27 minutes in both and played a huge role despite the lack of scoring. Teams know that Bamba can shoot it now and they guard him as such, not content to give him open looks around the arc. His defense has also started to reach the potential we all knew it had when Kyle Smith had recruited him. He has started to use his length and strength effectively, pushing guards off their angles on drives and blowing up screens consistently. He is likely to end up matched up with BYU’s leading scorer, Barcello, and he will need to be completely on his game defensively. Barcello can fill it up with his jump shooting and Bamba is going to have to make sure Barcello isn’t getting to his spots, is contesting every shot, and is locked in even when Barcello does not have the ball.
What to Watch For:
Getting easy looks is possible against BYU, but the Cougs will have to remain disciplined on offense to generate those looks. BYU plays personnel well, meaning they will know to chase Flowers and Tyrell Roberts over screens and force them to make plays or finish in the paint. Being willing to make the extra pass, take the open looks in the mid-range, and not doing too much will be keys for our guards in this one.
Taking advantage of the size advantage is not something WSU always does well, but they did it excellently against SMU and they should look to continue that against BYU. The size difference is not as noticeable against BYU as it was against the Mustangs, but it is still there and Abogidi, Gueye, and Jackson should all be able to take advantage and get some buckets down low and on the roll. It would also be huge get a high rate of offensive rebounds, as BYU is an excellent defensive rebounding team, but WSU is bigger than most of the teams they faced in the WCC.
Forcing the BYU guards to drive into the trees is huge for WSU’s guards in this one. Barcello is a pull-up artist and keeping him from getting to his spots is vital. Lucas is not the sniper Barcello is, but he is still going to struggle to score on Abogidi and Gueye down low. Even BYU’s ancillary guards and wings like Trevin Knell, Gideon George, and Spencer Johnson can all fill it up from deep, but are going to have a hard time scoring on the athleticism and length the Cougs have down low. Keeping BYU away from easy rhythm shots is the key to slowing down their offense as a whole.
Question of the Game:
Which Cougars team will shoot a better percentage from 3?