DIAMOND HEAD CLASSIC PREVIEW: WSU Cougars

CougCenter is your place to be for everything related to the Diamond Head Classic. This is the seventh of eight capsule previews of the participating teams. Yes, we're even previewing our own team. 

Head Coach: Ken Bone (101-65 overall; 24-16 WSU, second year)

Record: 8-1 (No. 32 KenPom ranking)

Best victory: 81-59 over No. 56 Gonzaga (home)

Worst Loss: 63-58 to No. 29 Kansas State (home)

Offense: 108.9 adjusted efficiency (53rd); 56.3 eFG% (14th); 17.2 TO% (23rd); 29.7 OR% (258th); 33.0 FTR (262nd)

The Cougars are an improved offensive team, and it really boils down to two factors: Better shooting from the entire cast and almost everyone taking care of the basketball. WSU ranked 142nd and 123d in those two categories a year ago, and while those numbers might be a function of weak non-conference competition, that alone can't explain the entire improvement. It's easy to look at that eFG% and think this team is lights out from deep, but what's really driving that figure is a 55.8 percent mark from inside the arc -- 10th best nationally. This team finishes around the rim.

Klay Thompson is showing that last season's improvement was no fluke, and that he intends to be even better this season. He's added better passing and penetration to his already deadly jump shot, leading to an excellent 113.2 offensive rating while using nearly one-third of WSU's possessions while on the floor, which is 80 percent of the time. He's morphing into a superstar and could very well give Derrick Williams a run for his money in Pac-10 Player of the Year honors.

But unlike last year, this team is no longer a one-man show on offense. Guard Faisal Aden has proven to be a worthy sidekick in most games (41.2 percent from 3 in 51 attempts), guard Marcus Capers is one of the most efficient secondary options in the country (135.7 offensive rating), forward Patrick Simon is a microwave off the bench (38 percent from 3), and forward Brock Motum has rarely missed an opportunity when given the ball in position to score (71 true shooting percentage). 

This offense is still a little bit of a work in progress, though. Point guard Reggie Moore only recently returned from a wrist injury, and his ability to get to the rim and either finish or dish changes its dynamic. That poor free throw rate is something the Cougs would certainly like to reverse, as this team is currently too heavily dependent on its shooting; two of the Cougs' three worst offensive efficiency performances (83.2 vs. K-State and 106.8 at Santa Clara) were directly tied to the two worst shooting performances of the year. Moore can help them become less one dimensional if he's healthy enough with that wrist to be as aggressive as he was last year.

Defense: 89.3 adjusted efficiency (26th); 41.3 eFG% (6th); 25.6 TO% (21st); 32.5 OR% (169th); 35.6 FTR (132nd)

This is where WSU is truly improved this year. The Cougars were a disaster defensively a year ago as they transitioned from the Bennett pack-line defense to something ... well ... we're not really sure what it was. It was described as a pack-hybrid, and the results were terrible, as players often looked lost and confused with regards to their assignments in defensive rotation. Those issues have largely disappeared this year, as the Cougs have used both man-to-man and an active 2-3 zone to disrupt shooters and force turnovers.

While this sort of defense is obviously a team effort, the Cougars do feature two superlative defenders who make this possible: Capers and DeAngelo Casto. Capers, a 6-4 guard with a wingspan about four inches longer than that, makes it his personal responsibility to hound the other team's best perimeter option. He's at his best when he's bothering smaller guards. Casto, a 6-8 forward with (again) a longer wing span than that, is the premier shot blocker in the Pac-10, currently blocking 13.5 percent of opponents' 2-point shots when he's in the game.

And don't sleep on Thompson as a defender. He's ranked 133rd nationally in steal percentage and has been a big reason why that zone WSU is running is as successful as it is -- he doesn't hesitate to jump up from the wing to disrupt a shooter.

The one notable weakness of the defense is clearly rebounding, due both to system (that zone) and personnel. WSU is vulnerable to a strong offensive rebounding team, although they've been able to mitigate that to a large degree by forcing turnovers. If they have a night where they don't force a lot of turnovers and give up a bunch of offensive boards, those efficiency numbers will likely head north in a hurry.  

The bottom line is that WSU is a team that can clearly win the Diamond Head Classic, and is likely looking at this as a prime opportunity for resume building. The Cougars should be able to defeat Mississippi State, setting up a likely matchup with highly ranked Baylor. A win there would be great, but a loss isn't a killer. This team needs to continue to test itself against stiff competition. The worst case scenario for WSU? A loss to MSU combined with wins by Baylor, Butler and Florida State would ensure that the Cougs' final two games will be against San Diego and either Hawaii or Utah. That would represent a huge missed opportunity.

Check out CougCenter's full coverage of the Diamond Head Classic here.

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