The Arizona Wildcats have dominated Washington State over the years, winning the last four meetings and 17 of 18, with the last loss in Pullman coming back in 2010. But this isn’t your typical Cougars team, they’re actually quite good.
How good is Wazzu? To better understand this opponent, we reached out to Craig Powers of SB Nation sister site Coug Center to get his insight. Here are his flowing answers to our stiff questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Washington State has its longest Pac-12 win streak (5) in 15 years and has played its way close to the NCAA Tournament bubble. What has been different about the team of late that has enabled this push?
Craig Powers: “There are a few components. First, WSU featured quite a few newcomers and young players at the beginning of the season and the coaching staff was trying many different lineup combinations. The rotation seemed to change from game to game. Second, the team has been hit hard by illness and injury. An outbreak of the flu in mid-December coincided with a stretch of non-conference losses, then a COVID pause meant the team practiced together just a couple times in the span of two weeks around the New Year.
“Big man Efe Abogidi was limited early in the season as he worked back from a knee injury, and Dishon Jackson has missed significant time after suffering an eye injury (he might be back for Arizona). However, lately the rotation seems to be more solidified with Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers taking larger offensive roles over Noah Williams, who has struggled offensively. Abogidi coming back to full strength has allowed him to not only play more minutes, but also play better as he can tap into his elite athleticism without fear.
“That improvement from Abogidi plus the rise of freshman Mouhamed Gueye has helped solidify WSU’s defense. While the offense still lacks a consistent punch and can go through long dry spells, the defense has stepped up to hold leads and seal wins in games the team was losing earlier in the season.”
The Cougars are near the top in most defensive metrics in Pac-12 play, and also play at one of the slowest tempos. How would you describe their approach on that side of the ball, and why has it been effective?
“The Cougs are primarily a man-to-man defense that attempts to push teams off the 3-point line and funnel them into the shot blockers. The guards pressure ball handlers and gamble for deflections, something that the coaching staff measures. That pressure leads to steals on errant passes, and you’ll notice WSU’s bigs have some nice steal numbers.
“Much like Arizona, the effort to block shots does leave WSU exposed on the defensive glass. The Cougs are just an average defensive rebounding team. That’s where Wazzu’s ability to force turnovers is important: it helps limit the other team’s shot volume when offensive rebounds are an issue.
“Kyle Smith has mixed in some zone recently, and I expect that will happen to try and entice Arizona into shooting more outside shots and limit some of the success of the pick-and-roll. The zone hasn’t been very effective.
“As for the tempo, that’s more of a function of the offense. Without a dominant playmaker, WSU struggles to find looks at times and ends up going deep into the shot clock. The Cougs also become methodical with a lead, something that has often been to their detriment.”
Arizona regularly plays two bigs at the same time, and few teams have been able to properly defend this. How do you think WSU matches up down low, and what can it do to neutralize the Wildcats’ size up front?
“WSU plays two long and athletic big men at a time—Gueye and Abogidi—to start most games, but often mixes in smaller lineups as the game goes on. This is often a result of foul trouble but has also been more common as Jackson has been sidelined because WSU needs at least one of them on the floor at a time.
“Gueye and Abogidi are slenderer (I just learned that slenderer is the proper term) than Arizona’s bigs, giving up quite a few pounds. Jackson is much more solid, and any minutes that he might be able to provide will be huge. The Cougs are able to handle Arizona’s length in the frontcourt better than most other teams, but the Wildcats still have the advantage.
“In terms of length overall, Arizona’s height at the guard and wing positions might be more concerning. Flowers and Roberts are short, and big guards can give them trouble.”
Who would you say is WSU’s most indispensible player, and why?
“That’s a tough one. The answer has evolved over the season. If you asked me in the first 10 games, I would have said Williams. He was the primary offensive option and a very good defender.
“Williams hasn’t played well during WSU’s winning streak, at least offensively, so it’s hard to say he is indispensable. Flowers is tempting because he has been WSU’s best scorer, but I’d probably have to go with Abogidi.
“In Kyle Smith’s first season at WSU (2019-2020), he improved the defense dramatically despite having atrocious interior defense. The Cougs were heavily reliant on turnovers because they could not defend around the rim. When Abogidi showed up last season he completely changed that. His presence as a rim protector has enabled WSU to go from a solid defense to an excellent defense.
“Defense is WSU’s identity, and it wouldn’t be the same without Abogidi’s impact. Additionally, he is an elite offensive rebounder and has improved his post game to the point where WSU will feed him for stretches at a time. He’s still not consistently good on that end, but the improvement on offense combined with his defensive influence means I’ll give him the nod. I may have a different answer in a month.”
Prediction time. Can the Cougs pull off the upset, vastly improving their resume and Pac-12 standing, or will Arizona win for the fifth time in a row and 18th in 19 tries in the series? What will the score be?
“Can the Cougs win? I think so. Will they? They are probably going to need to shoot 40+ percent from deep and turn Arizona over on 22-25 percent of possessions. And of course, I’m saying ‘sure they will do that because I’m not bringing any bad vibes into WSU’s biggest basketball game in over a decade (seriously, look it up. We’ve been in a dark place). Cougs 70, Arizona 67.