They’ve shot the ball at a higher clip, they’ve sustained their intensity on the defensive end and they’ve used their interior size to rebound the way they’re expected to as a Pac-12 basketball team playing against inferior opposition from conferences like the Southland, Big Sky and SWAC.
Those things on their own usually translate to wins, but Washington State coach Kyle Smith thinks there may also be a few intangibles at play. Intangibles like energy and passion – the type of things that can be hard to come by for a Power Five basketball team in late December, let alone during the height of a national pandemic.
“I talked to our team this week, I said, ‘A lot of coaches have gone into this deal, it’s hard to coach our guys, there’s no energy, this and that,’ ” Smith said. “I said, ‘Geez, my job is to make sure you guys are inspired to play. That’s our job coaching, we should be appreciative of these opportunities and grateful because the alternative is sitting home watching Netflix.’ ”
Inspiration hasn’t been a problem for the Cougars, especially in the last three games, against Portland State, Montana State and, most recently Prairie View A&M.
For the third time in as many games, WSU scored the first bucket and never relinquished the lead, dominating the SWAC Panthers for a 90-62 win in Pullman on Monday that extended one of the best starts to a season in recent program history.
The Cougars are the only remaining unbeaten team in the Pac-12 and their 7-0 start eclipsed a 6-0 start to the 2017-18 season under Ernie Kent. The last team to start 7-0 came in 2007-08, when Tony Bennett’s Cougars opened 14-0 before losing at No. 5 UCLA.
WSU’s nonconference schedule hasn’t been packed with heavy hitters and, by virtue of their Dec. 5 game at Colorado being canceled, the Cougars still haven’t played outside of Pullman. Smith understands all of that and even laughed off the Top 25 vote his team garnered a few weeks ago, suggesting his team probably hadn’t done enough to deserve it.
But the Cougars, at least, have demonstrated they’re more worthy of that recognition than they were at the start of the season, and reiterated that with their second 28-point blowout in just four days.
“It’s been funny with the COVID and trying to figure out what exactly you can get accomplished,” Smith said. “… Obviously I think our identity has been our defense, our rebounds have been slow to come along, but I think starting big has really helped us and we want to be better offensively, with our efficiency.”
Even if the defense had to take a dip, WSU checked the other two boxes against Prairie View A&M. For the second straight game, the Cougars started and got results out of a lineup that included 6-foot-10 Efe Abogodi and 7-foot-1 Volodymyr Markovetskyy.
Abogodi had his second double-double in as many games, stuffing the stat sheet with a team-high 16 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. Markovetskyy added nine points and five rebounds for a WSU team that had a significant size advantage against a team whose tallest starter checked in at 6-foot-8.
The Cougars missed 32 shots, but gobbled up the offensive rebound on 19 of those, setting a season high. WSU had 49 total rebounds compared to 30 for Prairie View A&M.
“I’m just going for it, I see the ball I just go get it,” Abogidi said of the team’s approach to rebounding. “I don’t really think too much about it.”
In total, five WSU players finished in double figures and four of them finished with at least five rebounds. Noah Williams scored 13 points to go with five rebounds, Isaac Bonton had 12 points with five rebounds, while both Andrej Jakimovski and Aljaz Kunc added 11 points.
The Cougars hadn’t made more than 10 3-pointers in a game this season, but knocked down 13 of 27 from beyond the arc against Prairie View A&M. Jakimovski, Kunc and Williams contributed nine of those 3-pointers, each hitting three.
“I think it’s a take what the defense gives you,” Smith said. “They wanted to speed up the pace tonight and I thought we did a good job of spreading them out, when we penetrated we looked out and made some extra passes and got some really good looks. So, that was great and it was good to see. Hopefully we can build on that.”
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