How to Watch
Date: Friday, 3/22/19
Tip-Off Time: 3:50 pm PT
Streaming: March Madness Live
Radio: KOMO 1000 AM/97.7 FM and TuneIn (only available in WA and Alaska)
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Betting Line: Washington +3.5
2018-19 Utah State Offensive Shot Chart
The Aggies only take about 11% of their shots from the midrange or long 2’s but they’ve been effective from around the free throw line when they do shoot it. Their offense is really focused on either getting all the way to the rim or kicking it out for a corner 3.
2018-19 Utah State Defensive Shot Chart
The closer the Huskies get to the rim the more trouble they’ll be in against Utah State’s defense. The Aggies are great in the paint with their elite rim protector but are liable to getting torched on wing 3’s which they don’t want to take risks to challenge.
This is it. After 8 long years the Huskies are finally back in the NCAA tournament. But the selection committee didn’t do Washington any favors by pitting them against Utah State. The Huskies have relatively limped to the finish line this season with a 4-3 record in their past 7 games with a net point differential of -17. Utah State sprinted and won 17 of their last 18 including a share of the regular season and an outright tournament title in the Mountain West.
If you are looking for a reason to have faith in the Huskies the primary factor will likely come down to strength of schedule-related arguments. The Pac-12 was bashed all season long for its perceived weakness and was rated as just the 7th toughest conference per KenPom. However, the Mountain West was 10th in that same metric and was closer in rating to the Big South at 19th than to the Pac-12 at 7th.
Utah State finished the season just 6-5 against teams in the top-120 of KenPom’s end of season rankings. Washington by contrast was 17-6 in those games. If you want to use the NET and the quadrant system things look a little closer but the Huskies still hold a significant edge. Utah State was 5-5 in Q1/Q2 games compared to Washington’s 11-7 mark. If you list out every team in each conference by KenPom ranking, the Mountain West would have the top-2 in Nevada and Utah State but the Pac-12 would have 10 of the next 11 teams. That has to color some of the raw total statistics that the Aggies were able to put up.
That doesn’t mean this Utah State team isn’t dangerous though because they very much are. Sam Merrill deservedly won the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and is absolutely capable of out-dueling Jaylen Nowell. His 3-pt% is down slightly this season with increased ball handling responsibilities but he’s a career 47/42/89% shooter. The only game he didn’t score in double figures this season was at #3 seed Houston. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is the only team Utah State has played this season with a better defensive efficiency than Washington...
Despite Merrill’s excellence, this Utah State offense is about much more than him. Craig Smith won MWC Coach of the Year for a reason. It was because his scheme creates so many of the opportunities for the Aggies. Utah State has really struggled this season when put in isolation situations. They just don’t quite have the horses off the dribble. But guys move without the ball and make the extra pass every time which puts enough stress on most defenses to find open layups.
Sometimes teams overemphasize the 3-pt shot to make up for athleticism differentials but that isn’t really Utah State’s game. They’re above average shooting from outside and essentially everyone on their team shoots at least a respectable percentage from deep but they’d much rather work it inside and get offensive rebounds than bomb away from 3-pt range. They also are very hesitant to utilize the midrange which will make it interesting to see how they react against Washington’s zone.
The strength of Utah State’s defense also lies on the interior. 6’11 Neemias Queta was an unknown freshman from Portugal who signed with the team in late August. But he transformed them into an incredibly stout unit with his 7’5 wingspan and shot blocking prowess. Queta finished 14th nationally in blocks per game at 2.4 and the Aggies as a whole ranked 4th in 2-pt defense and 5th in defensive rebounding. When he’s in the game they’re able to shut off the interior and any hope for second chance points.
If you have been watching the Huskies all season and just finished reading all of that you probably are not feeling great right now. This is not a good matchup. If the Huskies could imagine the team they play in the NCAA tournament it would look close to the opposite of Utah State. Washington’s weaknesses involve their 3-pt shooting, rebounding, and tendency to give up open looks off multiple crisp passes (not Crisp passes). They’re playing a team that forces their opponents to beat them by shooting 3’s, is dominant rebounding, and is one of the best passing teams in the country. Yikes.
That doesn’t mean the Huskies can’t prevail. Utah State has only played 2 games against a top-50 defense away from home this season. They scored 50 points and 49 points in those two games which unsurprisingly were by far their lowest point totals all season (to be fair, both were true road games rather than neutral ones). Both of those games were before Utah State went on their tear so the question becomes whether their offense is fundamentally different now or whether their success was in part due to avoiding elite defenses.
The Aggies have had success against zones this season but they also only played one D1 game in which their opponent ran zone more than half the game and it was against 14-18 New Mexico with a 200th ranked defensive efficiency. Almost all of that success was against teams only running zone for a few possessions because their attempts at man to man weren’t working. Utah State will have to prove it can succeed against a top-20 defense and a level of length/athleticism in a zone they haven’t experienced.
The Washington offense is certainly capable of playing the type of game that will be needed to win this game. In Utah State’s losses this season their opponents have averaged going 9 of 24 (37.5%) from the 3-point line. The Huskies have made at least 9 3’s in only 4 of their last 10 games. But they actually went just 2-2 in those games with the wins coming in 3-point victory over USC and the OT escape against OSU. Washington has been at their best when they shoot a good percentage from deep but don’t fall in love with the 3-point shot so they can still get fouled and get to the line. The Aggies are going to bait the Huskies into a shooting contest and UW is either going to need to hit 50%+ from deep or, to quote Coach Hopkins, not eat the cheese and still work the ball inside. And once they get it there Noah Dickerson is going to have to snap out of his funk and have a vintage game accumulating fouls on Queta and using his strength to counter Utah State’s length.
On the defensive end Washington is going to have to play a very disciplined game. Utah State is not going to settle for 3’s late in the shot clock after lazily passing it around the perimeter. They’ll move the ball quickly and if there’s a small gap to get it into the high post they’ll likely find it. Once it’s there, Dickerson/Wright/Timmins need to stay at home with the USU big man on the baseline and dare the Aggies to shoot it. They’ve generally been unwilling to take that foul line jumper this season. Sam Merrill is the only Aggiewith more than 10 attempts in that range all season. If anyone else gets the ball there make them prove they can and will hit it before you leave your feet and your man for a shot block attempt.
There are plenty of scenarios where the Huskies win this game. If Noah Dickerson sends Utah State’s only rim protector to the bench by drawing 2 early fouls against Neemias Queta. If Utah State’s lax perimeter close outs lead to David Crisp, Dominic Green, and/or Matisse Thybulle getting hot from 3-point range. If Washington’s length and athleticism is just on another level from anything Utah State has encountered previously which reveals the flaws in the Aggies’ resume.
But everything points towards Utah State having the edge in this one and so I’m going to end up desperately rooting against my prediction.
Washington Huskies- 68, Utah State- 73
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