The difficulty ramps up for Washington State basketball as the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos come to town.
Washington State men’s basketball faces its toughest test of the young season when the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos visit Beasley Coliseum in Pullman on Monday night (8 pm PT, Pac-12 Washington). WSU is at 2-0 following a pair of 18-point wins over Alcorn State and Seattle. The Gauchos are playing their first Division I opponent after opening the year against Division II San Francisco State.
UCSB is coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament where it suffered a hear-breaking loss in the final seconds of its first-round match-up against Creighton. Are the Gauchos still at that level? Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact WSU vs. UCSB.
When UC Santa Barbara has the ball…
The Gauchos achieved great offensive efficiency last season without the major aid of offensive rebounding. They ranked 65th nationally in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and 53rd in turnover percentage (TO%). That, combined with the 76th-best free throw rate (FTR) enabled UCSB to finish 56th in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom despite landing 158th in offensive rebounding percentage (OR%).
When a team limits turnovers, offensive rebounds become less necessary for success. There are many avenues to shot volume.
Santa Barbara will have to look to maintain that offensive success without its top player from last season—point guard JaQuori McLaughlin. Georgia Southern transfer Calvin Wishart will presumably take over one of the guard spots vacated by McLaughlin. He wasn’t a primary offensive option at Georgia Southern but was a voluminous and effective 3-point shooter—73% of his shots came from beyond the arc and he hit 37% of those long-range attempts.
Junior guard Ajare Sanni ascends into the UCSB starting lineup after playing nearly 56% of available minutes off the bench as a sophomore. He’s an excellent 3-point shooter—hitting 40% last season, and almost half of his shots came from 3-point range. Sanni tracks primarily as a catch-and-shoot jump shooter, with just around a quarter of his shots coming at the rim (via hoop-math.com).
Josh Pierre-Louis rounds out the starting backcourt. At 6’4, he is looking to attack the paint. Over 71% of his shots were at the rim last season and he made nearly two-thirds of those attempts. Given that high volume of shots at the basket, it would be typical for him to shoot more free throws, but it’s possible he avoids contact because he hit only 59% from the foul line.
Freshman Ajay Mitchell may see minutes off the bench in UCSB’s three-guard lineup. Mitchell is a high 3-star recruit out of Belgium. So long as there are no plans for a redshirt, he should see the floor.
Amadou Sow will provide the best interior resistance that WSU has seen this season. At 6’9, 235 he has good size to contend with the Cougar bigs. He used that stature to be a highly effective offensive rebounder last season, while also working inside the arc for most of his scoring. Sow will rarely venture out to take a 3-pointer, but he does work in the midrange and has excellent touch on free throws (83%).
Joining Sow in the frontcourt will be 6’10 senior Miles Norris. He’s a stretch four who shoots well from deep (37%) and doesn’t take many trips to the free-throw line. Just 34% of his shots came at the rim, a low number for a 6’10 power forward. His distance from the basket also led to a low offensive rebounding rate. Norris could potentially cause trouble for WSU by virtue of pulling Efe Abogidi away from the basket and limiting his chances to alter shots and grab defensive rebounds.
Overall, the Gauchos will provide a tough test for WSU’s defense. UCSB hoooooo,,as shooters, a slasher, and a legit big man. The Cougs won’t be able to simply overwhelm them with athleticism and size. As Bryce Hendricks noted in his tactical preview, the Gauchos are very effective in running their sets, and even more effective when they can get into early offense.
When WSU has the ball…
UC Santa Barbara didn’t just ride a great offense to a 22-5 record last season, it also played some good defense—finishing a nice 69th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. That defensive success was predicated on forcing turnovers, cleaning the defensive glass, and limiting 2-point shooting without fouling.
The Gauchos lost two of the biggest factors in their highest forced TO% of head coach Joe Pasternack’s five seasons in Santa Barbara—McLaughlin and guard Devearl Ramsey. Pierre-Louis is expected to pick up some of the slack in steals, as will Wishart.
As for the defensive glass and defending 2-pointers, the pieces are still there for the Gauchos to be effective. They have solid size across the entire starting lineup—with 6’2 being the smallest guard, so they have the length to bother shots. Sow is an elite defensive rebounder—he pulled down 26% of available defensive rebounds when he was on the floor last season. Norris is a serviceable defensive rebounder he provides a good supplement to Sow.
USCB doesn’t block many shots as a whole, but Norris and Sow are decent rim protectors. To be able to defend two-pointers so well without blocking shots speaks to a team that is sound defensively on the ball—but again, it remains to be seen if the losses in the backcourt will negatively impact the defense. The Gauchos were solid at defending the rim (41% in field goal percentage at the rim), and forcing midrange jumpers (39th highest percentage of 2-point jumpers allowed).
Finally, much like WSU does defensively, USCB takes on the philosophy of limiting 3-point field goal attempts—21st lowest as a percentage of total field goal attempts last season. That will provide quite a clash with the Cougs’ offensive propensity to shoot a high volume of three-pointers.
The Bottom Line
This game will be far from the walkover than WSU experienced in its first two outings, and depending on how well USCB does throughout the rest of the season, this could end up being a solid piece on an NCAA tournament resume.
KenPom predicts a 72-65 in favor of the Cougs, with WSU winning in 72% of simulations. Bart Torvik has the Cougs 72-64 and finishing 78% of simulations on top.
For WSU to come out on top, it needs to continue its downward turnover trend—the Gauchos will be looking for steals. The Cougs also need to exert their will inside, by grabbing extra chances on the offensive glass, dominating the defensive glass, and drawing fouls. Getting either of UCSB’s starting bigs in foul trouble could cause a major challenge. Any factor that tilts shot volume in WSU’s favor will be hugely beneficial.
The Gauchos are definitely deploying a modern defensive philosophy of forcing teams to the midrange—it would be useful is WSU could draw them in with effective interior play, opening up shooters on the outside. Noah Williams posting up on smaller guards may be an effective strategy.
It will be interesting to see if WSU sticks with the 3-guard lineup to match USCB, or if it will start deploying a bigger body, such as TJ Bamba or Andrej Jakimovski, to start the game. Either way, it’s still likely that the Cougs will rotate heavily, and that may be an advantage against a Gauchos squad that doesn’t run nearly as deep.