With Pac-12 Conference play around the corner, Washington State can feel confident in the caliber of its talent, although coach Kyle Smith said his new-look Cougars remain an “unformed team,” a work in progress that must mature if it plans on making noise in the conference.
WSU is enjoying a deeper roster of lengthier athletes, improved ball-handlers and shooters, and a wealth of possible lineup configurations.
The Cougars (5-1) should match up well with league opponents this year, certainly better than they had throughout their first two seasons under Smith.
But WSU failed to perform as a cohesive unit in a 76-71 loss Saturday to 20-point underdog Eastern Washington. The Cougars squandered a 19-point first-half lead and shot 31.1% from the floor, committing 10 turnovers during a second half in which they seemed to fold mentally.
“Some of it would start with us not being ready to fight the fight,” Smith said Tuesday. “That’d been kinda brewing for a while. We’d been really bad in second halves and I don’t know if it’s a conditioning issue or mental conditioning, or just us not handling success.”
WSU trounced overmatched foes Alcorn State, Seattle U and Idaho, then built a commanding lead against Big West favorite UC Santa Barbara and held on through a late Gauchos push.
The Cougars watched most of a 23-point first-half cushion diminish down the stretch last week versus Winthrop, an NCAA Tournament qualifier last season, which shot the lights out from 3 in Pullman.
Winthrop cut its deficit to seven with about 2 minutes to go before WSU sweated out a victory from the foul line.
“It’s hard to learn the lesson when you won the game,” Smith said. “We can make a lot of excuses about what happened against Winthrop. Well, we won and (the lead) never got under five. But there’s a malaise there, an effort issue we gotta address.”
A tendency to let up after intermission caught up to the Cougars against their local foes from Cheney.
“You gotta compete all the time. It’s the reason you play the game,” Smith said. “I think it can happen to anyone. It’s human nature – you get complacent, you get a little soft and you think someone else is going to (pick up the team’s energy).
“We gotta know who we are. We gotta be the scrappiest team. It needs to be part of our identity. It suits Pullman.”
It’s a process, and the Cougars are still in the early stages of it – that is, deciding how their personnel pieces best fit together, and how to respond to pressure.
They’ll learn quite a bit about themselves this week. WSU opens its Pac-12 schedule Wednesday at Arizona State (2-5), then hosts surging Southern Cal (6-0) on Saturday.
In WSU’s loss to EWU, the Cougars were playing without their captain in junior Noah Williams, a defensive whiz and 14 ppg scorer who also functions as the team’s emotional leader. Improved sophomore guard TJ Bamba – a steady scorer and defender who plays 20 minutes per game – was absent as well, also recovering from a minor injury.
Although he wasn’t definitive, Smith said he “feels comfortable we’ll have one of them at least” versus ASU, and indicated Williams is closer to being available than Bamba.
Ten Cougars are playing over 14 minutes per game.
Their starting lineup features three newcomers in guards Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers, and post Mouhamed Gueye. One of the first players off the bench, fiery guard Jefferson Koulibaly, missed all of last season with an injury. Key contributors Efe Abogidi and Andrej Jakimovski saw limited reps in the preseason as they rehabbed injuries.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they haven’t settled in fully as a group.
But the Cougars’ start to this anticipated season has otherwise been encouraging, particularly on offense.
The sharp-shooting Roberts (14 ppg) and Flowers (13.7 ppg) are filling it up, and seven others chip in over five points per night for a club that connects on a solid 47% of its field-goal attempts, averages 84.8 ppg and commits 12 turnovers per game – all improvements from last year.
WSU sits 59th in the widely respected KenPom.com rankings, with its offense landing unexpectedly high at No. 48. A defense-oriented team over the past two seasons, WSU ranks No. 86 in that column.
“We have too many one-way players that need to get better on that end,” Smith said, noting WSU’s zone defense has lapsed too frequently. “Obviously, not having Noah and TJ available affects that, but even with them, we had been going the wrong way there.”
Smith is also looking for an uptick in physical play from his frontcourt trio of Dishon Jackson, Abogidi and Gueye – a rookie whose youth showed in a scoreless effort versus EWU. Consistency underneath is crucial in the Pac-12, which isn’t short on towering, athletic posts.
The Sun Devils, who experienced a fair amount of roster turnover this offseason, are off to a slow start. But their losses include Baylor, Loyola Chicago and Syracuse – opponents that rank third, 30th and 60th, respectively, on KenPom’s charts.
ASU, which prides itself on guard play, ranks 11th in the Pac-12 at 41.9% shooting.
“We need to be worried about us being able to handle their quickness, their pressure on the road as much as anything,” Smith said of ASU.
No. 20 USC is rolling, yet the Trojans have only logged one victory over a top-100 KenPom team (San Diego State).
Their roster boasts NBA draft prospect Isaiah Mobley, a 6-foot-10, 240-pounder who averages 12.2 points and 9.2 boards per game, and slashing guard Boogie Ellis, a Memphis transfer and 14.5 ppg scorer.
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