PULLMAN – For a snapshot of all the agony and the ecstasy inherent to college basketball, observe one of Ike Iroegbu’s recent fast-break forays to the basket.
The Washington State point guard’s eyes light up as he successfully writhes his way through the opponent’s haphazard defense. The look on his face as he flies to the rim unimpeded is one of determination masking utter delight at the sure score.
One beat later and the expression has changed to abject horror as a descending Iroegbu realizes that after getting past the hard part of creating an open shot at the rim, the final step has gone awry and the basket has been missed. On top of that, he knows he has surely drawn the ire of coach Ernie Kent, who is trying to turn those transition buckets into the staple of his program.
“Basically, if it’s a 1-on-2 on my end, I better make it or get fouled if I’m going to shoot it,” Iroegbu said.
Kent came to WSU with the idea of making it a running team and has been successful at speeding up the Cougars. According to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, the Cougars rank No. 27 in adjusted tempo, up from No. 336 last season, and Iroegbu has been WSU’s pace-setter.
Hoop-Math.com defines a transition basket as any that comes in the first 10 seconds of a possession following a steal, defensive rebound or opponent basket. Its figures do not include WSU’s games against Gonzaga, in which Iroegbu made 3 of 4 two-point attempts.
The sophomore guard is clearly WSU’s primary threat to attack the basket on fast breaks. He leads the Cougars with 35 such shots at the rim, 15 more than DaVonte Lacy, who is No. 2 on the team.
Iroegbu has made 22 of those transition attempts at the rim, a 63 percent clip, a solid figure but one that could be better, especially since the Cougars need him to be a threat on drives to the basket to set up the rest of their transition game.
The Cougars stress defenses during fast breaks by forcing them to overcommit to defending one area. When WSU collects a defensive rebound, its wings sprint hard to spots outside the 3-point line, rarely getting the ball but forcing defenders to leave the paint to maintain contact.
The point guard, often Iroegbu, receives runs to a sideline and receivers an outlet pass as close to half-court as possible without incurring the danger of a stolen pass.
“That’s one thing coach Kent emphasized as soon as he got here, that the outlet has to be a really deep outlet,” Iroegbu said. “If you need more than two dribbles to get past half-court than you didn’t get the outlet deep enough.”
Iroegbu brings the ball up a sideline and either attacks the basket if the defense hasn’t stopped him or kicks it to one of the wings, either way drawing defenders out of the middle for the trailing rebounder. The trailer is probably Josh Hawkinson, who leads the Pac-12 with 8.7 defensive rebounds per game.
“As soon as I get the rebound and pass it out, Ike does a really good job of sucking everyone to the basket,” Hawkinson said. “Most of the time my guy is going to help on Ike as he’s driving to the rim looking for the kick, and doesn’t see me trailing down the court so that leaves a pocket in the defense for me to shoot the ball.”
Hawkinson has been effective as the trailing player, making 11 of 21 two-point jump shots in transition.
But for all that to work, Iroegbu has to be a threat to score at the rim. That’s an area in which he has struggled lately, making just 1 of 6 transition shot attempts at the rim over the last two weeks. His recent struggles have dragged down his shooting percentage in those situations, which was 72 percent entering that stretch.
“Obviously, he’s gifted enough to get there and get to the basket and everything, but he’s not played well,” Kent said after last week’s loss to Arizona. “We’ve got to get him back on track again, because we’re going to need him next weekend and obviously to have any opportunity to close this year on a really, really positive note.”
One reason for Iroegbu’s recent struggles is that teams are packing more players in the paint to defend against his drives. In that sense, the strategy of WSU’s transition game is working, although if that is the case then he should be passing in many of the situations in which he is shooting.
“(Other teams are) starting to send more guys back, but I’ve got to do a better job of taking good shots,” Iroegbu said. “I think at the beginning of the season I was taking really good shots when I was getting to the rim. Now I notice more that when I’m attacking, there’s like two or three guys around me.”
But where that falls down, and why teams are likely able to devote extra players to defending Iroegbu’s drives, is that WSU’s wings are doing a horrible job of punishing teams for leaving them open on the perimeter. The Cougars are shooting just 26.5 percent on transition 3-pointers, a big reason why the team is 307th among all Division I teams in effective field-goal percentage on transition baskets.
Although Iroegbu’s shots at the rim are harder than they used to be, and aren’t falling like they were earlier in the season, they may still be WSU’s best option in transition.
With senior scorers such as Lacy and Dexter Kernich-Drew about to graduate, Iroegbu’s offensive role is going to get bigger. Since he has the physical tools to get shots at the rim despite multiple defenders, it only makes sense to let him learn how.
“They’re hard shots for sure but to be a really good basketball player in this league you’ve got to be able to make tough shots,” Iroegbu said. “Let the game come to you and don’t force the issue, but if I’m feeling it I’m going to make the play.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.