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WSU BASKETBALL: Taking Stock After The 'Preseason'

With their thrashing of Sacramento State last night, the Cougs wrapped up what I affectionately refer to as the "preseason" portion of the schedule. Five opponents, all of them clearly inferior, designed to get the team a little confidence and allow Ken Bone to solidify roles.

Of course, only one of those two goals were met, as injuries to both Reggie Moore (who has yet to play this season) and DeAngelo Casto (missing the last two games with a foot injury) took away some of the continuity a coach hopes to establish when playing these sorts of cupcakes.

The cupcakes are done, and No. 5 Kansas State comes to Beasley Coliseum on Friday. It's time to take stock of where the team is at, using both our eyeballs and some statistics to evaluate the Cougars' progress.

One of the major questions heading into the season was the frontcourt. And I feel like we still don't really have many answers on that front. Brock Motum looks more confident and comfortable -- he's hit 22 of his 26 shots -- but it's been against some pretty poor frontcourt competition. With Casto hurt, he did hold his own against Fresno State's Greg Smith, but he only played seven minutes against Portland, the other team with some legitimate forwards. Is he ready to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Jamar Samuels and Elias Harris? He's looked much better than last year, but I'm still unsure.

The most trouble aspect of this situation is the play of Casto. Although he's scoring efficiently when he takes shots, he's turned the ball over a ton when it's in his hands and, perhaps more troubling, his rebounding percentages are down at both ends of the floor. As the team's only legitimate rebounder up front, he actually trails Marcus Capers in both OR% and DR%. Not good.

In just looking at the numbers, I'd be tempted to say it's just a little bit of small sample size. But my eyeballs -- which only saw the Portland game -- tell me something else is up. He just looked unfocused and wasn't going after loose balls with the kind of abandon we've come to expect. Perhaps it's a byproduct of Moore's injury; Casto could always count on being the beneficiary of some easy buckets with Moore on the floor. But the greatest asset a player can have is sound knowledge of his strengths that translates into using those strengths on the floor; Casto would be wise to remember what it was that put him on the map in the first place. 

How will Moore's return affect the offense? Conventional wisdom says that the offense will only improve by adding Moore back to what's already a potent offense. After all, he brings a dimension -- the ability to penetrate against most anyone -- that's sorely lacking from this current unit. However, that means Faisal Aden likely heads to the bench. Will it upset his rhythm? How is Bone going to mix and match?

There's no doubt that in the long run this team needs Moore at the point. But I wonder about the short-term effects of jumping into the fire against Kansas State and their extreme ball pressure. 

The Cougs are currently the fourth-best shooting team in the country by eFG%. That's driven largely by the second-best 2-point percentage in the nation. I'm really not sure what to make of that. On the one hand, my brain tells me to largely dismiss it because of the weak competition. The Cougs have had only 7.1 percent of their shots blocked (85th nationally), so there's certainly some evidence for that theory. But I also can't ever remember a time early last year where we were so prolific inside the arc, so maybe there's some significance to it.

I'd be shocked if it continues at this rate, but then again, adding Moore back to the mix is only going to bolster the attack around the basket, so whatever boost the team has gotten from being able to make mid-range jumpers against shorter guards could be largely offset by that. 

I guess what I'm saying is that while I wouldn't expect the Cougs to keep making 62.5 percent of their 2s, it's probably not a total fluke, either. This will be something to watch in the next two contests, as we're currently getting more than half our points (56.4 percent) from inside the arc. That mark was just over 52 percent a year ago. Will our overall production drop if that percentage does, too?

Statistically, the defense looks great. WSU has held all but one opponent under 100 efficiency, and they're currently 17th nationally in eFG% against. I mean, look at all this green in the defensive stats! That's great, right?

This is another situation where my eyes are telling me something different. Their poorest defensive performance was in the one game I saw which, probably not coincidentally, was against the best team they've played so far. It honestly just looked like more of the same as last year. Poor rotations, soft hedges, stupidly running under screens instead of through them ... same old stuff from most of the guys. That simply won't cut it against K-State and Gonzaga, who are likely to make open shots at a rate much greater than some of the crappy teams we've played. (Well, it might against Gonzaga, because the Bulldogs aren't really that good. But I digress.) I don't buy that teams are shooting 24.2 percent from 3-point range against us because our defense is amazing. 

To Bone's credit, he took a hard line against the "little things" last night -- Grippi reported that the reason you saw Ben Loewen so early wasn't because of the blowout, but because when a player screwed up something small, he found a seat on the bench. I'm guessing most of that was on the defensive end. Hopefully the message was received, because 90 percent of the defensive issues I saw against Portland were either issues with effort or guys simply not thinking. Those things are correctable.

However, it's one thing to yank guys in a game you know you're going to win. When you've been letting them more or less get away with it for over a year now ... I have to wonder if the message will be received in time for Friday, because it's going to take the best defensive effort of the year to contain the Wildcats.

I have a man crush on Marcus Capers. Do I need to expand on that? Nope, I don't think so. He's a stud. And my favorite player.

I think Aden is for real ... sort of. I don't believe he'll keep scoring at this prolific of a pace. To be scoring the way he is almost exclusively on jumpers leads to a healthy dose of skepticism, as even the greatest shooters are prone to regression -- his current shooting percentages are far outpacing the ones he put up at junior college last year.

However, I think he's awful talented, and will continue to score more than enough to take some pressure off Klay Thompson and make opposing defenses respect him. He and Thompson won't be the top two scorers in the Pac-10 all season. But that's OK.

Speaking of Thompson, he's still awesome. I don't know that there's much more to be said. We've seen this before. Now it's time to see him do it against the big boys. I think he can.

Did you know that last year, WSU scored nearly 1/4 of its points from the free throw line? This year, that's 14.2 percent. Much of that last year had to do with Moore's ridiculous free throw rate. Will we see a similar spike upon his return? Again, it might be necessary to offset what will have to be an inevitable regression with that 2-point percentage.

It's early, so correlations are sort of only mildly relevant at this point. Still, the Cougs have some interesting ones developing:

  • +.92 FTR to offensive efficiency. While our free throw rate hasn't been exceptionally high, our offense has fluctuated with it a bit. That FTR figures to go up dramatically when Moore returns. Might be a positive sign that this offense has yet to realize its full potential.
  • -.54 opponent TO% to defensive efficiency. The shooting defense has been good, but turnovers have been important, as our opponents are currently turning it over on nearly 25 percent of their possessions. Can it continue? Are we actually forcing these turnovers, or is it just bad basketball? The 12.1 percent steal rate (53rd nationally) suggests that it's at least partially due to us. But if it doesn't continue against teams with more talent and better ball handlers, will the overall defensive efficiency drop significantly?
  • +.89 opponent OR% to defensive efficiency. Given that we're facing two very good offensive rebounding teams in our next two games, it would appear that defensive rebounding would be really important.

I haven't seen anything else out of anyone else in the Pac-10 that leads me to believe second or third place in the Pac-10 is out of reach. I'm not saying the Cougs look better than everyone else not named Washington. I'm just saying, with all the ball I've watched so far this year, there's absolutely no reason to think WSU won't be right there with everyone else.

That's about it. There's probably some stuff I've forgotten, but that should give you some things to chew on. I'll have a breakdown of Kansas State later today in advance of Friday's game.