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WSU Men's Basketball

‘Structure and freedom’: Inside the offense new head coach David Riley is planning to bring to WSU

PULLMAN – Telling the story of last season’s Washington State team is impossible without telling the story of how the Cougars’ use of Isaac Jones changed down the stretch.

Jones, WSU’s 6-foot-9 athletic forward, was best with his back to the basket. He’d catch the ball on the block, back his guy down with a dribble or two, then use some nifty footwork to stride into the lane for an easy layup or dunk.

Except as the season hit its final stretch, as the Cougs established themselves as the Pac-12’s second-best team and surged into the national rankings, opponents wised up. They started doubling Jones on the catch. They also started fronting him, but without enough spacing to open up the pass, WSU had a difficult time even getting the ball to Jones.

Then, last week, Washington State hired a head coach whose offense could make this pass with ease.

David Riley, the former head coach at Eastern Washington for three seasons, prides himself on efficient offense. Last season, his Eagles ranked fourth nationwide in effective field-goal percentage, sixth in field-goal percentage inside the arc, and nobody in their rotation shot worse than 35% from beyond the arc.

With shooters at all five positions, Eagles opponents had no choice but to stick to their assignments, which opened up the floor for post entry passes like those. It may only be one play, but it demonstrates the kind of offense Riley might implement with the Cougars, whose lack of spacing toward the end of the season hampered their offense in a meaningful way.

“We have a very concept-based offense,” Riley said at his introductory news conference last week. “We’re gonna allow these guys a ton of freedom within the structure of it. And as long as they’re unselfish – because if you give guys some structure and freedom, but you’ve got a bunch of selfish dudes, it doesn’t work. But if you have unselfish guys that buy into it, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Riley wants to transform WSU into an offensive machine, the kind into which he molded Eastern Washington.

In terms of personnel, the Cougs are working from a near-bare cupboard. At this point, they return three players, maybe four, depending on junior wing Jaylen Wells’ decision on whether to turn pro: freshman guards Isaiah Watts and Parker Gerrits, plus forward Spencer Mahoney, who was not on scholarship last season.

Riley, who said he hopes to finalize his coaching staff this week, could get an assist from his old squad. As of Monday, three former Eagles have entered their names into the transfer portal: junior wing Casey Jones, who led the nation last season in free-throw rate; junior center Ethan Price, who shot 47% on 3-pointers in Big Sky play last season; and freshman guard LeJuan Watts, who took home Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors.

Whether they follow Riley remains to be seen – Jones has received interest from Stanford and WSU coach Kyle Smith, according to one report, which included Ole Miss and Grand Canyon on that list – but it does illustrate the type of player with which Riley has built his teams.

His best players can all shoot the ball, and they’re willing passers.

A stat that demonstrates that best: Last season, EWU ranked ninth nationally in assists on made shots with a figure of 62%. Senior point guard Ellis Magnuson ranked second in the conference with an assist rate of 31%.

“We’re gonna make sure that we take great shots and then play together,” Riley said, “and once they kind of understand that structure, that’s where they get that freedom to make reads and be creative and be themselves.”

Still, concerns exist in other corners of Riley’s operation at EWU. Last season, the Eagles allowed an average 3-point percentage of 36.9%, which ranked nearly last in the country. Their defensive effective field-goal percentage of 52.8% ranked in the 300s in the nation. They also registered steals on just 8% of possessions, No. 293 nationally.

It’s one of the reasons Eastern Washington disappointed in two straight postseasons, taking the top seed into each of the past two Big Sky Tournaments, only to get upset in the quarterfinals both times. Last season’s Eagles didn’t make any national postseason. The year prior, they appeared in the NIT, taking down WSU in Pullman before falling to Oklahoma State in the next round.

Riley took care to note, EWU’s defense ranked well within the Big Sky. The Eagles’ defense finished fourth in conference play last season, allowing a conference-low effective field0goal percentage of 51.3%. A year prior, that number was 49.2%.

Can Riley keep those trends intact – and turn around the wrong ones? Much of that will depend on the roster he fields come fall. One thing seems certain: Riley’s offense is one in which WSU playmakers like Wells and Watts could thrive.