In many ways, Washington State’s young basketball team has matured and developed since its season opener against Texas Southern nearly three months ago.
In others, the Cougars must feel they’re still stuck in November.
With anywhere from three to five underclassmen in the starting lineup, there was always a chance WSU could encounter ball security issues this season. To make matters worse, second-year coach Kyle Smith felt shaky about his backcourt depth as is, and the situation worsened when the Cougars learned freshman combo guard Jefferson Koulibaly would miss the season with an arm injury.
Now the Cougars lead the Pac-12 Conference in turnovers per game (15.1) and may be heading into a crucial homestand against California and Stanford without their top scorer and distributor, Isaac Bonton.
After rolling both ankles in a loss to USC, the senior point guard was unavailable for WSU in a 65-63 loss to Washington on Monday and Smith is unsure if Bonton will be cleared to play Thursday against the Golden Bears (8-15, 3-15), let alone on Saturday against the Cardinal (13-8, 9-6).
Thursday’s game is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. and will air on the Pac-12 Networks. Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. tipoff will air on ESPNU.
“I don’t (have an update) at this time,” Smith said Wednesday in a press conference. “He’s icing, rehab. Hopefully getting better, getting healthier.”
A team that never truly addressed its turnover issues with Bonton on the court saw things worsen with him on the bench in Monday’s Apple Cup. The Cougars committed 13 turnovers in the first half against the Huskies – as many or more than nine Pac-12 teams average in a game – and finished with a season-high 19.
WSU has committed no fewer than 12 turnovers in a game this season and the Cougars have committed more than 15 on seven different occasions. Often, the turnovers have been a result of poor entry passes to freshmen bigs Dishon Jackson and Efe Abogidi, who’ve emerged as a formidable post duo with their length, athleticism and ability to play inside out.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball and make sure we get shots,” Smith said. “Obviously our strength is our inside guys that play inside out and we turn the ball over way too much trying to feed the post and people are going to take that away, but we’ve got to get better there.”
With five games in a span of nine days, the Cougars have had minimal time to make corrections and adjustments outside of a competition setting, but Smith said they’d be hammering turnovers during today’s practice session by introducing punishment for poor ball-handling choices.
“We’ve got a push-up, sit-up regimen because our legs are a little tired that we’ll be implementing today,” Smith said. “We were good at (ball security) last year and some of it was because we played small a lot. But just old school push-ups. We need to find a new way, we’ve got to take care of the ball. We knew we were a little thin in the backcourt and just being young, youth. A lot of youth.”
In WSU’s first matchup with Cal, the Cougars won 71-60 playing a Golden Bears team without leading scorer Matt Bradley. The all-conference guard has averaged 20.7 points per game since returning to the court and poured in 29 in Cal’s 71-62 upset of Colorado.
“I think they’re a good team with him, for sure, because I think he’s one of the best scorers in the country,” Smith said. “I think he’s ninth in usage. He doesn’t need a screen, he doesn’t need anything, he just needs the ball in his hands. He can score at all three levels, he gets to the foul line, can make 3’s off the catch or off the dribble, a really tough cover. It’ll be a team effort trying to slow him down. You’re not going to stop him, but you’re going to have to slow him down and make him earn it.”
Phasing in fans
As the state of Washington enters phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, WSU is optimistic about its chances of allowing a limited number of family members and close friends of players in its final two, or possibly three, home games at Beasley Coliseum.
As The Spokesman-Review has reported previously, Gonzaga will be able to accommodate 200 people inside the Kennel at home games the remainder of the season. All indications are that the Cougars would be able to do the same, though the school hasn’t come out with an official announcement.
“I think there’s a possibility we’ll be at the same deal with 200 people with family and friends maybe,” Smith said.
The men’s team hosts Cal and Stanford this week, but Smith indicated the Cougars will play Arizona State in Pullman the week prior to the conference tournament. WSU was scheduled to host the Sun Devils on Dec. 31, but the game was postponed because multiple ASU players were in COVID-19 protocol.
The WSU women will play three more home games before the Pac-12 Tournament, hosting Colorado (Feb. 19), Utah (Feb. 21) and Washington (Feb. 28).
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