Editor’s Note: This preview has multiple videos that demonstrate what Dustin is talking about. This preview is best viewed in it’s full form, not on Google AMP/Apple News.
After coming off a home win against Stanford in the second round of the NIT, the Cowboys get set to lace them up one more time in GIA as they take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The game against Stanford was sloppy at times but the Pokes were able to force the Cardinal into 19 turnovers, had solid ball movement racking up 16 assists, got great scoring performances from Jeffrey Carroll (26 points) and Kendall Smith (19 points), and held Standford’s Reid Travis, who averages 19.5 ppg, to 14 points. You can read the full CRFF recap here.
If the Cowboys can win this NIT Quarterfinal matchup against WKU, they will head back to New York, where they played Texas A&M and Pittsburgh earlier this season in the Legends Classic. A win would also give the Cowboys their 16th home win of the season, which would be a new Oklahoma State school record.
Now, let’s get to the preview.
Who: Western Kentucky (26-10, 14-4 C-USA)
Where: Gallagher-Iba Area, Stillwater, Oklahoma
When: March 21, 2018 - 7:00 p.m. CT
Radio: Cowboy Radio Network
Live Stats: okstate.statbroadcast.com
Odds: Oklahoma State -4.5
Western Kentucky has beaten Boston College (KenPom.com #76) and USC (KenPom.com #51) so far in their NIT run. The BC victory came at home in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the USC win came Monday night in Los Angeles. Both of those are solid wins; however, the Hilltoppers only have four other KenPom top 100 wins this season, and only one KenPom top 50 win. For perspective, Oklahoma State has nine KemPom top 100 wins and eight of those were against teams ranked in the top 50.
WKU’s lone KenPom top 50 win is very impressive though, coming against the Sweet 16 bound Purdue Boilermakers at a neutral site.
Western Kentucky’s strengths this season have been protecting the basketball (only 11.8 turnovers per game), scoring the basketball (63rd in scoring offense) , doing that scoring efficiently (54.6 percent effective field goal percentage) and limiting fouls (43rd fewest fouls in the country).
On the other hand, the Hilltoppers aren’t the best rebounding team, ranking 167th in the nation, they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they don’t take or make a lot from long range.
KenPom.com currently has them ranked 50th.
Players to Watch:
The key player to watch for Western Kentucky is 6’7, 240lb senior Justin Johnson (15.6 ppg and 9.5 rpg). Johnson has a similar skill set to that of Stanford’s Reid Travis. He can take you outside, where he shoots 43%.
Or he can take you inside where he has great moves out of the post.
He went off for 23 points on 57% shooting against the Trojans, and was one of the main keys for WKU in beating the USC zone.
Along with Johnson, fellow senior, 6’4 guard Darius Thompson (13.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg) is another solid scoring option for the Hilltoppers. Thompson is a versatile athlete on both ends and he recorded a triple double earlier this season. He and Johnson absolutely destroyed the USC zone out of the high post.
Outside of these two, freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth (13.0 ppg and 3.3 rpg), who broke current NBA player Courtney Lee’s WKU freshman scoring record, point guard Lamonte Bearden (11.6 ppg and 3.4 apg) and 6’9 forward Dwight Coleby (10.9 ppg and 7.8 apg) are all key pieces for this Western Kentucky squad.
Outside of Johnson, this Hilltopper team mostly consists of freshman and transfers and they only really play seven guys.
Three Big Things:
1. Protect the Paint
In their last three games, Western Kentucky is averaging 40.7 points in the paint per game, including 52 (!) against USC on Monday night. As I showed in the videos above, Johnson has the ability to score in the post and so does Thompson. In addition, the Hilltoppers like to feed Coleby on the block, clear it out and let him go to work.
And from the perimeter, Bearden, with his incredibly long wing span, loves to penetrate and score.
Additonally, guard Josh Anderson will get involved in the penetration game as well.
The Cowboys allowed Stanford to score some easy buckets inside at times, as they finished with 36 points in the paint, but overall I thought they did a good job of limiting Travis in post-up opportunities.
Western Kentucky does not take a lot of 3’s and they only shoot 35.3 percent from outside, so the Cowboys will need to protect the interior and force the Hilltoppers to shoot from distance.
2. Zone Offense
I feel like this could be one of the “Three Big Things” almost anytime the Cowboys face a team that will play a zone defense. Western Kentucky generally runs man on defense, as they did a majority of the time against USC, but they have played a 1-3-1 zone and a 2-3 zone at times this season. After seeing how Stanford’s zone was able to stall the Cowboys and force them out of rhythm on offense, I would expect to see WKU switch to zone at times in this matchup.
In the video below you can see them switch to a 1-3-1 trap defense against USC. They were able to make the Trojans uncomfortable and force them in to bad decisions when they switched to this defensive set.
For the Cowboys to beat the zone, specifically the 1-3-1, they must move the ball and cut across the baseline. Against Stanford’s 2-3 zone, the middle of the floor was open, but against the 1-3-1 the middle is covered, so the Pokes must run the baseline and look to shoot from the short corner, drive to the hoop or find a open passing lane once the zone rotates.
The Hilltoppers have been able to force a lot of turnovers out of the 1-3-1 zone this season, and Oklahoma State will have to play efficient, smart basketball if WKU goes to this look tonight.
3. Play Inside-Out
One thing that USC was able to get going against Western Kentucky was the pick-and-roll game. In the topic above I know I said that WKU may play zone, but against USC, it was almost all man defense. USC did a great job of finding the roll man and the roll man did a great job of drawing the foul,
or finishing at the rim.
I would love to see the Cowboys get this going early with Mitchell Solomon, Yankuba Sima and Cam McGriff. And, if the defender cheats to the roll man, Oklahoma State has capable perimeter players such as Kendall Smith and Lindy Waters, who can finish it themselves.
Now, going back to the “Inside-Out” play, what I mean by that is for OSU to go to the pick-and-roll and post-ups early on, which will result in open shots on the perimeter once the defense starts collapsing.
Now, if WKU plays zone, the pick-and-roll won’t be as effective, but as I said above, ball movement and baseline movement will open up passing lanes into the paint. If the Cowboys can do this effectively, it will create the same result. The zone will start collapsing even further, and the perimeter shots will be wide open.
Although I think that Western Kentucky is a solid team, I believe that Oklahoma State is more talented all-around. The Cowboys are on a mission to revenge their NCAA Tournament snub, and they will want to put on a show for the rowdy GIA crowd. The Pokes win this one 78 to 70 and then head to the Big Apple.