The opening moments of the UW-WSU game in Pullman told you just about all you need to know about the game and the season at large. The Cougars pulled up for a long three and missed so badly that it banked in high off the glass. Late in the first half, with the Huskies up by a point, WSU went back to that mode of attack and banked in another long three. The Cougs took the lead into halftime. The Dawgs looked demoralized after the break and never regained the lead.
It wasn’t the lucky banked three that was at the heart of WSU’s strategy, though, it was a strategic move by coach Kyle Smith that opened up space in UW’s zone. I have noted several times this year that Mike Hopkins has the wide defenders on the baseline cheating up toward the wing to take away clean looks from outside. WSU was the latest team to expose the space left behind those defenders with three shooters above the break. With three offensive players pulling defenders toward them, the shooter in the corner is left all alone. Once he gets the ball, he can either shoot an open three or drive to the basket, which pulls Isaiah Stewart away from the rim and opens up an easy layup from the other side of the hoop.
There are a couple tweaks that can help alleviate the issue. Hopkins isn’t wrong in pushing defenders up to take away the three, but the Dawgs can’t routinely keep four defenders up high without giving up layup after layup like they have done of late. One tweak would be to have the baseline defender quickly show on the strong side shooter while the other defender on top of the zone scrambles to the strong side and allows the baseline defender to retreat to the man in the corner. Another option is to get Stewart moving toward the corner faster and rotating another defender (weak side baseline or weak side top) into the middle until the rest of the team recovers. Whichever strategy they use, the baseline defenders have to recover more quickly and aggressively. Jaden McDaniels, Naz Carter, and Jamal Bey were all guilty at different times of giving up on plays once the ball got into the corner, and the results were exactly as described. Another side effect of baseline defenders failing to rotate back is that Stewart is left alone on the glass, which is a big part of the reason near the very bottom of the country in defensive rebounding.
Can UW recover? It’s probably too late to think about March Madness unless they can pull off a miraculous run in the conference tournament. It would mean a lot to fans, though, if the team showed enough resolve to finish the season on a higher note. This weekend’s trip to LA offers two games that are challenging but at least possibly winnable on paper. UW smashed USC at HecEd and the Trojans haven’t been a model of consistency since then- they are on a run of losing to Colorado and both Arizona schools consecutively. UCLA is showing signs of a defensive turnaround with five wins in their last seven. They are still vulnerable enough on that end to give up 84 points to Arizona State.
In addition to the defensive adjustments listed above, the Dawgs need to make some rapid improvements on the offensive end. Without Quade Green in the lineup, opponents have discovered that UW struggles to create good looks when anyone other than Stewart has the ball. When the double him in the post, that leaves very little in the way of a Plan B. Bey and Carter have not proven adept at creating for others off the dribble. McDaniels is too loose with the ball. Elijah Hardy does not have the dynamism to put pressure on defenses. Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuan Battle can do good things, but they also do lots of bad things as inexperienced freshmen. At this point, I might bite the bullet and let McDaniels run pick and rolls with the instruction to try to get the ball out of his hands quickly to a shooter or a rolling Stewart. The turnover rate would be high, but would the offense really struggle more than it does now?
Oregon’s hold on the Pac 12 lead has slipped as the Ducks have hit a rough patch the last few weeks. Their lack of interior scoring has put a heavy load on their guards and it cost them again against Oregon State over the weekend. Arizona, the heir apparent to the conference lead, followed a strong outing versus USC with a miserable 52 points against UCLA. Those results left Colorado with the hot potato after the Buffs took down Cal and Stanford. Colorado has some of the trappings of last year’s UW team with a veteran-laden corps in a conference that seemingly can’t get out of its own way. They won’t have it easy the rest of the way, though, with five road games against just two in their elevated haven. If they can get a split with the Oregon schools this weekend, it will leave them feeling pretty good going into the last three weeks.
If you’re reading this, it might already be too late to catch Kansas vs. West Virginia, one of regular season’s heavyweight battles. Even without his trademark full-court press, Bob Huggins has the Mountaineers playing some of the best defense in the country. As usual, they grind out just enough offense by rebounding and getting to the line to make them highly dangerous. The fun doesn’t end there for WVU, who follows up that one with a trip to Waco to play #1 Baylor.
Elsewhere, the Big 10 has lots of good matchups. Surging Maryland visits Michigan State and Purdue head to Ohio State on Saturday.
Who is the best team in the Big 12?
This poll is closed