PULLMAN – Inconspicuously adorned in a red polo and jeans, Valentine Izundu sat glumly at the end of the bench, his arms crossed or his head resting on his hands as he forced himself to watch the Utah Utes fly through his airspace unimpeded.
There were plenty of reasons for Washington State’s folly in Thursday’s 92-71 home loss to Utah besides the ineffective manner in which the Cougars defended the basket.
WSU turned the ball over 13 times, often as a result of their own errors, resulting in 22 relatively easy points for the visitors. They were beaten up on the boards, too, getting outrebounded 34-24.
But there was one failure in particular that took the Cougars out of contention right from the opening tip. Utah scored 40 points in the paint, mostly on layups unless player in question could dunk.
“I think the whole team’s defensive effort was soft,” Ernie Kent said. “I would definitely agree with that and we talked about it. What you continue to do is give other teams the tape. And until you change the tape, other teams will come in here with the same mentality: Drive this team, rebound against this team, out-tough this team.”
There had not yet been an endorsement of Izundu’s importance to the WSU defense that rang as loudly as Utah’s all-out assault on the rim during Thursday’s game.
The long-armed center transferred from the University of Houston last season. The Cougars spent his redshirt year dropping hints about the effect he had in practice and teased his debut this season by posting a video on social media of the 6-foot-10 junior jumping and extending his hand above the backboard.
When Izundu is on the floor, he blocks about 16 percent of the 2-pointers shot by WSU’s opponents and his presence surely deters would-be drivers from approaching the paint, forcing them into more difficult shots.
“Obviously we miss him,” Kent said. “But at the same time, when you’re 30 feet from the bucket, you shouldn’t get driven to point-blank. There’s something that needs to happen between 30 feet and three feet where you can get a guy under control.”
Conor Clifford is offensively gifted, forming the yin to Izundu’s yang, but was ineffective against the 7-foot sophomore Jakob Poeltl, a projected NBA lottery pick. And without Izundu protecting the rim, the Utes made 59 percent of their 2-point attempts.
Poeltl dunked the ball on Utah’s first offensive possession. Jordan Loveridge made a layup on the following possession, and Lorenzo Bonam hit one as well. The Utes got clean looks at the basket on each of their first five offensive possessions, building a 10-4 lead before taking a single jump shot.
Loveridge then buried consecutive 3-pointers following a Josh Hawkinson jumper and the rout was on. With the Cougars collapsing in the paint, Utah’s shooters had open jump shots all night and made 11 of 22 attempts from behind the arc. Brandon Taylor scored 21 points, making 5 of 7 3-pointers, while Loveridge chipped in 22 points, canning five 3-pointers himself.
“At the end of the day it comes down to our defense,” Josh Hawkinson said. “And if we were one step late, they capitalized on it and made all their shots from the outside and inside. I think we just played soft today.”
WSU (9-9, 1-5 Pac-12) has lost four consecutive games since its upset of No. 25 UCLA. Hawkinson and Que Johnson led the Cougars in scoring with 16 points each. The pair were efficient scorers, with Hawkinson making 6 of 7 shot attempts and Johnson hitting all three of his 3-pointers.
Utes (14-5, 3-3) coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team began the season as one of the Pac-12’s standard-bearers, and still holds the conference’s most impressive victory thanks to its upset of Duke.
But the Utes had averaged less than one point scored per offensive possession during their first five Pac-12 games. Krystkowiak asked the team for a “revival” during his pregame pep talk. And the efficiency with which the Utes scored against the Cougars – 1.37 points per possession – was a big improvement.
Junior Longrus tried to defend Utah’s talented posts and though he was exuberant on defense, he had to compensate for his lack of size by playing with extra physicality. He picked up his fourth foul with 16:26 left in the second half, leaving the paint even more accessible as he joined the stoic Izundu on the bench.
Forgive Izundu for not emoting much; at least he stayed to the final buzzer, unlike many of his classmates in the student section who began streaming to the exits with 13 minutes left in the game.