PULLMAN — As Washington State kicks off its next road swing, a two-game trip against Oregon State and Oregon this weekend, the Cougars find themselves in a curious spot.
They need to avoid a bad loss to the Beavers. They need to secure a key road win over the Ducks. They’re one game back of first place in the Pac-12, which matters to everyone involved — but the streak they’re really trying to break is their NCAA Tournament drought.
With two wins in Oregon, the Cougs can make some meaningful strides on that front. Here are five keys to that end.
WSU plays Oregon State at 7 p.m. Thursday and Oregon at 2 p.m. Saturday.
1. Limit Oregon State guard Jordan Pope’s scoring
The Beavers (11-11, 3-8 Pac-12) are coming off two straight losses, road setbacks to UCLA and USC last weekend. In both games, Pope couldn’t score like he usually does.
In OSU’s loss to USC, Trojans guard Bronny James face-guarded Pope for the majority of the game. Pope still had a decent scoring outing – he scored 14 points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field – but those four shot attempts were his fewest of the season. He also lost six turnovers in the first half alone, four with James as his primary defender.
That seems to give WSU (16-6, 7-4) a blueprint for guarding Pope, the conference’s fifth-leading scorer at 17.5 points per game.
The Cougs could stick one of their better on-ball defenders, Myles Rice, on Pope. They could also opt for a stronger, stockier defender like James, someone like wing Jaylen Wells.
If the Cougars can keep Pope’s scoring to a minimum, they force others to beat them, which isn’t a winning formula for the Beavers. In conference play, OSU is 1-5 when Pope isn’t the team’s leading scorer. If WSU can take the ball out of Pope’s hands, the Cougs give themselves a much stronger chance of winning.
2. Keep the offense humming all game against OSU
To beat Oregon State last month in Pullman, Washington State had to come alive in the second half. The Cougs faced a three-point deficit at halftime. Thanks to a scoring spurt from forward Oscar Cluff and Andrej Jakimovski, the hosts pulled away as the game went on.
That’s playing with fire on the road, where it can be hard to keep the same offensive rhythm. WSU can’t afford to go on the kinds of droughts that led to its early deficit against OSU in their first meeting.
The good news for the Cougars is their offense is coming together — in ways that weren’t there in January. One of the bigger developments involves Wells, who is blooming into a secondary shot-creator, which takes pressure off Rice and gives the team another source of scoring. He’s made himself a key cog in WSU’s offense.
It’s paying dividends in all kinds of ways. Defenses respect the shooting of Wells, who is making 39% of his 3-pointers this season, which opens up so much. Wells can attack closeouts, move it around the court, dump it off to posts at the basket. That has helped the Cougs keep pace in high-scoring games. They’ll need some of that on Thursday in Corvallis.
3. Slow down Oregon’s offense
Last month, when Oregon shot the lights out in a win over Washington State, WSU coach Kyle Smith was willing to acknowledge the Ducks shot it well. But he also acknowledged the underlying problem: His team needed to contest shots better, particularly from the outside.
In that game, on Jan. 6, Oregon connected on 14 3-pointers. One even banked in. It remains a season high for the Ducks, but the Cougs didn’t play good enough defense, at least according to Smith.
That will be key for WSU – to slow down Oregon’s offense, at least more so than in the teams’ first clash. But perhaps not more than our next key.
4. Attack Oregon’s weaknesses
The Ducks (15-7, 7-4) can be beaten in a few ways, but especially with defense and rebounding. All seven of their conference losses have come when they’ve been outrebounded, and they’ve permitted 70-plus points in seven of their past nine games.
The numbers go even deeper. Oregon has allowed opponents to average an effective field-goal percentage of 51.5, which ranks No. 233 nationally, and it allows a 3-point clip of 35.7% – No. 295 in the country.
Oregon might be getting a boost back on that front, though. Center Nate Bittle, who missed the WSU game in January with a broken wrist, returned to practice this week, this time from an illness.
If he’s back on the court come Saturday, the Cougs will have to factor into their plan a 7-footer who has averaged 10 points in five games this season.
5. Take advantage of the resume-boosting opportunities
WSU can bolster its NCAA Tournament resume by winning these two games, of course, but here’s what’s on the line: Oregon State will enter Thursday’s game ranked No. 168 in the NCAA NET rankings, which would mean a Quad 3 loss for WSU if it were to happen. That would give the Cougs their second Quad 3 setback, a blemish on their ledger.
Meanwhile, Oregon checks in at No. 57, which would mean a Quad 1 win for Washington State. That would hand the Cougs their fifth of the season, more than No. 5 Alabama, No. 7 Auburn, No. 8 BYU and No. 14 Illinois.
It would also be a meaningful win for WSU because it would bump Oregon further off the bubble, making more room for the Cougs, particularly because they share a conference.