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John Blanchette: Washington State sophomore CJ Elleby’s restraint a sign of maturity

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 7, 2019

The game’s final pass went deep beyond the defensive pressure to CJ Elleby, all alone in the frontcourt with but a few unimpeded steps between himself and the ritualistic exclamation-point dunk.

Except he chose self-effacement over spectacle, mercy over mercy-me.

So he veered away from the basket and the score remained 63-54, Washington State, when the horn sounded, plus two points for maturity that won’t show up in the stats. If anyone left feeling robbed, well, Cougars head coach Kyle Smith spoke for them.

“Dunk it,” Smith said. “He dribbled it out, but I had no problem if he’d dunked it. Hey, for us that’s a great possession. We need field-goal percentage! No one’s gonna be mad if you dunk it!”

This was in jest, of course. Or mostly.

The Cougars’ win over New Mexico State in Saturday’s matinee at the Spokane Arena was pure keeper, aside from a pause in poise in the late going. The Aggies are NCAA Tournament perennials with a slew of guys back from a 30-win team – two of those over Wazzu – and the Cougs did a nice little boa constrictor number on them on defense.

It will serve as the season’s signature victory until – unless? – the Cougars can summon something better once Pac-12 play begins.

Which will be a challenge, make no mistake.

The Cougs are undersized and rebound-poor. Point guard play, off Saturday’s evidence, can be a roll of the dice.

When Isaac Bonton isn’t in the lineup – he played 15 minutes Saturday after illness kept him out of the previous game – there is no secondary scoring option after Elleby, and to this point Bonton has had some serious problems making shots.

Yet for all that, there is something disarming about Smith’s first Wazzu team that the Arena audience could appreciate – even if there were but a handful doing the appreciating. The announced attendance of 1,222 was the lowest in the Cougs’ 36 Arena appearances across 25 years.

Well, there is convincing that needs to be done. Saturday was a step.

For instance, last year’s Cougs were 284th out of 352 Division I teams in defense. Among Power 6 teams, only Cal was worse. Holding the Aggies to 34% shooting – 18% from 3-point range – and forcing 17 turnovers suggests progress.

“We play that well, we’ll win our fair share at home,” Smith offered. “On the road, you’ve got to make some shots.”

Trying to finish that offensive jigsaw puzzle will produce nights Smith may have to resort to a wooden mallet to fit all the knobs into sockets. On those nights, it’s likely too much of the burden will be falling to Elleby, whose skills make him one of the Pac-12’s tougher assignments. Yet even as he scored nearly a third of WSU’s points Saturday, Smith saw reason for encouragement.

After just a few significant offensive touches in the first half, Elleby scored WSU’s first nine points after intermission – and not out of any grand design.

“He’s going from being Robin, with (Robert) Franks on the team last year, to now he’s Batman,” Smith said. “But you don’t always fight fire with fire. Their game plan was going to be to stop him with different coverages.

“He picked his spots. They couldn’t stay in front of him. People want to take away his 3, but good scorers get to the foul line, get offensive rebounds. You’re the guy offensively and we’re going to play through you, but you have to find a way to do that.”

Elleby’s embrace of Smith’s pet concepts in what’s likely as not to be his last season in a Cougars uniform might qualify as a surprise in this aspirational age. But there he is, leading the Cougars in steals and tracking NMSU’s best 3-point threat in the closing minutes.

“When my energy is focused on defense, everything else comes easier,” Elleby said. “And it’s where winning starts.”

Smith is an old hand at fresh starts and transitions. He helped with the spadework when Randy Bennett was making something out of nothing at Saint Mary’s.

When he got his big chance at Columbia, he discovered a roster that was “dysfunctional, but really smart – a dangerous combination.” At San Francisco, he had to win over a large group of holdovers, and did by winning 20 games his first year.

His affinity for data analysis notwithstanding, Smith’s approach remains rather old-school.

“It’s kind of how we did it at Saint Mary’s, too,” he said. “We were brutal offensively at first, but we established something. We’re going to compete, and that’s what it’s going to be to get on the floor. Then the more talented guys figure it out. It’s just a threshold you have to reach.”

And don’t forget to punctuate it.

“I guess next time,” Elleby said, “I’m going to have to dunk it.”

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