The Washington State Cougars are in the Big Apple and one win away from playing for the NIT championship. The Cougs have won all three of their NIT games by double digits thus far and they have been firing on all cylinders. Their defense has absolutely looked the part of its 26th ranking on Kenpom, and the offense has looked the best it has in a long time as well. WSU is now just two games away from bringing home an NIT trophy as the cap to the Cougs’ impressive season.
The game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. PT from Madison Square Garden in New York City and can be watched on ESPN2 or ESPN.com (with a cable subscription).
Standing in the way are the Texas A&M Aggies. The Aggies are a team many thought belonged in the Big Dance, but they were hurt by an eight-game losing streak from mid-January to mid-February. However, they gained momentum at the right time, beating Auburn and Arkansas in the SEC Tournament and beating Oregon and Wake Forest, each by 15, thus far in the NIT. The Aggies are a dangerous team that has a lot of talent to work with.
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M is a solid offense, but WSU’s defense should be a good match for the Aggies. They rank 72nd in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, and that is carried a lot by their guard play and athleticism. They are great at getting into the paint and getting to the line, ranking 47th in free throw rate, and they are able to do that in the half-court and in transition. They rank only 113th in offensive pace, but they play in transition more than that number would suggest, especially when they generate steals. They also are a great offensive rebounding team, often sending four to the glass and finishing at the rim off of those boards.
Other than that, A&M does not have many strengths on offense. They are not a great shooting team — ranking 230th in three-point percentage and 251st in three-point rate — and they turn the ball over a lot. They are merely above average in assist rate, ranking 140th, as they rely a lot on scoring in isolation by getting to the rim rather than creating within the flow of their offense, and those offensive weaknesses are why they have been so inconsistent throughout the season.
The Aggies play a lot in isolation and their guards excel at getting to the rim. The guards are a nice mix of athleticism, craft, and strength and they are able to knife into the lane to finish or get to the line.
When A&M is not running in transition, they are more likely than not running Horns. Horns is a set-up where the two bigs are at the elbow and the play is run around those two. They run simple actions out of this, like ball-screens or handoffs, but they will also run more complex stuff out of it occasionally. This play is a horns set-up that ends in a simple dribble handoff and drive.
They run a lot of plays out of horns that are not usually set up with horns. Here, they get in the horns look, but rather than entering the ball to the elbow, they run a staggered away screen and then a pick-and-roll.
Their primary goal out of horns is to catch the defense sleeping. Horns usually brings the defensive bigs up to the elbow to help guard potential handoffs, but this often leaves the paint unprotected. If the defensive guard gives up a step on this burn cut, it is an easy pass and finish from the big to the guard.
This is an example of a more complex horns play. This is a wheel play that acts almost like a tighter version of WSU’s Spain pick-and-roll. It ends up getting the guard downhill and getting a shooter to pop to behind the arc.
The Aggies are an intimidating defense, and they are versatile on that end. They rank 31st in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and they have had some impressive defensive performances down the stretch of this season. Their greatest strength on defense is that they force a lot of turnovers, ranking 8th in the nation in opponent turnover percentage. Most of these turnovers are live ball as well, ranking 3rd in steal percentage, and it allows them to get a lot of easy buckets in transition. They also contest shots well and force teams to take tough jumpers, ranking 54th in opponent three-point percentage and 98th in opponent two-point percentage. They are small and that leads to poor rim protection, but their aggression and athleticism help make up for their lack of size.
A&M does have some major issues on defense that can be exploited by WSU if they are locked in. They are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, allowing opponents to grab 33.2% of their own misses — 340th in the nation. They also foul a lot, ranking 258th in opponent free throw rate. The Cougs are not great at getting to the line, mainly because they lack rim pressure guards, but if they are getting their bigs in good position then they should get to generate points from free throws.
Another interesting aspect of their defense is that they rank 354th in opponent assist rate, meaning that teams are forced to pass a lot to score on them. The Cougs have had their passing issues, but they will have to trust in each other in this one.
This is a representative play of the Aggies’ defense as a whole. They show aggressively in ball-screen coverages, they scramble around to take easy passes away, but they are susceptible to giving up easy looks from deep. The Aggies also give up offensive rebounds at an almost comical rate, here just not corralling the ball and allowing Oregon to get another offensive possession.
A&M will aggressively switch ball-screens. The tallest player in their starting lineup is 6’6 Henry Coleman and they are comfortable with him checking guards. They also show how aggressive they are in help here. They understand they are small and unlikely to contest shots vertically at the rim, so they focus on taking away those looks from farther out rather than letting drivers get to the rim.
A&M forces turnovers in a variety of ways, jumping passing lanes and stripping ball-handlers, but their most consistent steal type is jumping the post-entry like this. They like to do this ¾ front in the post and bring another player around the backside of the post-up player, making entry passes difficult. WSU likes to get post-ups early in the game and they will need to be pinpoint in order to get the looks they want in this scenario.
Finally, the Aggies will bust out a little ¾ court press here and there. They are comfortable having anyone on the court guard anyone, so they set this up as a sort of trap and they will scramble to whoever the open man is once the press is broken.
Players to Watch:
Quenton Jackson is A&M’s leading scorer and go-to guy on a possession-by-possession basis. He lives at the rim, using his 6’5 frame and wiry athleticism to get by defenders and finish over rim-protectors. He shoots almost five free throws a game and he hits them at an 82.4% clip. He is also a good defender and a comfortable shooter, even if he is not the most efficient player. He does a lot on both ends and will likely be the focus of WSU’s defense in this one.
Tyrece Radford is A&M’s X-factor in every game. He is a dog on defense, posting a 2.3% steal rate and often checking the opposing team’s best guard. He is likely to guard Mike Flowers in this one and Flowers will probably end up guarding him. He is a good offensive player as well, specifically as a driver. He can get to the rim in isolation, seemingly at will, and he is also one of the more consistent spot-up shooters for the Aggies. Radford’s all-around game makes him an effective, if streaky, guard that WSU will need to account for.
Henry Coleman is A&M’s best NBA prospect and is incredibly funky. Coleman is only about 6’6 (though he is listed at 6’8), but he plays as the center in the Aggies’ starting lineup and he does a lot of little things to help A&M win. Coleman doesn’t shoot, but he is an efficient finisher, and he gets to the line at a good rate as well. His defense is solid and he is just an overall solid player. The Duke transfer likely has a year or two left of college ball, but don’t be surprised to see him someday playing in the NBA.
Washington State Cougars
Players to Watch:
Michael Flowers took over the game in a way we had not seen from him all year against BYU. He surpassed Klay Thompson’s single-season three-point record and he hit a variety of shots in the mid-range too. He has continually improved throughout the season, which is impressive considering he is a 5th year senior. He runs the show how Kyle Smith likes it, avoiding turnovers and finding the bigs on the roll better than anyone else on the team. When he finds the balance between scoring and passing, he can take over games with ease. Texas A&M is going to have their hands full with him, but Flowers is going to have to continue playing within his rhythm and avoid turnovers too.
Tyrell Roberts has had a somewhat quiet, but impressive, run through the NIT. After the 23 points he dropped against Santa Clara, his scoring regressed but the rest of his game continued playing at a high-level. He had six rebounds, three assists, only two turnovers, and played high-level defense against SMU. He then had an efficient game against BYU, completely avoiding turnovers, and making Alex Barcello’s night miserable. Roberts does so much as an off-ball shooter and defender that it helps make up for his lack of size and passing. He has been a huge boost to the Cougs on both ends and he will have to continue avoiding turnovers and playing defense against the Aggies.
Efe Abogidi has had four or more stocks (steals and blocks) in each game in the NIT thus far. He has looked the part of an NBA rim protector and he has made the Cougs’ defense untouchable around the rim. That rim protection is more important against A&M than it has been against almost any other team the Cougs have played this season. A&M lives in the lane and relies a lot on their guards finishing over bigs in the paint. If Abogidi can completely eliminate those finishes, as he has so much over this stretch of the season, the Cougs could be in position for another big win.
What to Watch For:
Controlling the glass is the biggest key for WSU in this one. A&M is a bad defensive rebounding team, but a great offensive one. The Cougs should be able to get around 40% of the available offensive rebounds, and if someone like Abogidi or Dishon Jackson are getting those boards, it should be easy points. However, keeping A&M off the offensive glass is equally important. WSU needs to win the shot-volume game to maximize its chances of winning here.
Avoiding turnovers is another way the Cougs should be able to win the shot-volume game. The Cougs have been excellent at avoiding turnovers all season, even against elite defenses, but A&M is a bit of a different beast than WSU is used to. The Aggies will blitz WSU’s ball-handlers, attempt to jump every pass, and make post-entries extremely difficult. The Coug guards will need to take care of the ball and still make plays for themselves and others.
Scoring in isos is another key for the offense in this one. Limiting turnovers often means limiting passes as well. That has a lot of positives and negatives, as it means fewer turnovers, but it also means fewer easy buckets. If the Cougs are going to avoid turnovers, they will need to be able to score in isolation. Flowers is the go-to guy here, and he is inconsistent but solid as an iso scorer, but Roberts is the guy to watch in this aspect. If Roberts is hitting jumpers off the dribble at a high level and forcing the defense to adjust to his scoring, it would be a major boost to WSU’s offense.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs take New York?