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WSU Basketball: Cougars improving heading into Pac-12 play

But they've still got a long way to go. We catch you up on what you missed during non-conference play if you weren't paying attention.

William Mancebo/Getty Images

Washington State wrapped up the nonconference schedule with a 90-83 victory over UC Davis (it wasn't really that close) on Sunday afternoon. There was a time when the Cougars would basically rubber stamp a one- or two-loss nonconference record, but not these days: WSU heads into the rigors of the Pac-12 with a 6-6 record that features some ugly losses.

Since many fans seem unable and/or unwilling to pay attention to a not-very-good basketball team until football season is over and the opponents get more interesting -- that happens this week as WSU travels to the Bay Area to open conference play -- here's a quick look at what's gone down over the first 12 games of the Ernie Kent era.

What's gone as expected?

They're not a very good team. There was no serious infusion of talent in the offseason, so expectations were low, and the Cougs have met them: They enter Pac-12 play rated 197th by, lower than in any season since Paul Graham's last, after finishing 183rd a year ago.

The beginning to the season was not good, to say the least. The coaching staff did themselves no favors with the schedule, as WSU started with three of its first four games away from Pullman against UTEP, TCU and UC Santa Barbara. Nobody will confuse those three teams with championship contenders, but they're all top-100 squads, and the Cougs -- working their way into a new system against solid competition without the benefit of playing at home -- looked bad. Like, horribad, particularly offensively. Couldn't hit a shot, couldn't hang onto the ball, couldn't get any production from star guard DaVonte Lacy.

In those three losses (there was a win over Idaho State mixed in), the Cougars were outscored by nearly 70 points and an average of 0.34 points per possession. For the uninitiated, that's a super horrible per possession margin.

Things have gotten better; the offense started to come around as the shooting improved and the turnovers dropped, and the Cougs picked up wins in Alaska against Rice and Missouri State, picked up convincing wins against Texas-San Antonio, San Jose State and UC Davis, and they looked respectable against Gonzaga up in Spokane. But there was a home loss to Idaho and a road loss to Santa Clara, both of whom are sub-200 teams.

I think WSU probably is better than its current rating, which is really being dragged down by those first three losses and the loss to Idaho, but that's like arguing the difference between "bad" and "really bad." And that's probably not worth arguing.

The style has changed, even if the results haven't. Ernie Kent has delivered on his reputation as an offensive-minded coach who likes his teams to play fast. A year ago, WSU's average possession length on offense was 20.9 seconds, 346th out of 351 Division I teams; this year, it's 16.4 seconds, 46th overall. Consequently, their adjusted tempo has shot up from 336th (62 possessions per game) to 47th (69).

That's because there's been a lot more of this sort of thing:

WSU UC Davis Iroegbu transition

WSU UC Davis Que Johnson transition dunk

WSU UC Davis Lacy transition 3

Unofficially, I think those three plays from Sunday equal the number of transition buckets from all of last season. The result? Kent has improved the offense nearly 100 spots in adjusted offensive efficiency without a significant upgrade in personnel.

The defense stinks. The adjusted defensive efficiency has dropped more 100 spots, all the way down to 262nd. But again, given Kent's reputation, it's hardly surprising that the emphasis on offense led to a de-emphasis on defense.

A big part of the issue has been the interior play. The frontcourt doesn't block shots and doesn't rebound particularly well -- they're 180th in opponents' 2-point percentage, 217th in block percentage and 201st in defensive rebounding percentage despite playing mostly midmajors who typically have small front lines.

The Cougars also don't force turnovers, ranking 331st in opponents' turnover percentage. About the only thing they do well defensively is keep opponents off the free throw line. And that's not enough.

DaVonte Lacy is still awesome. (And they still need him to win.) It initially appeared that Lacy was having a hard time figuring out where he fit in Kent's offense, but he's come on strong since to be the go-to guy we all expected him to be. He's averaging better than 17 points -- and again doing it efficiently -- thanks to plays such as these from UC Davis:

WSU UC Davis Lacy spin move

WSU UC Davis Lacy 4 point play

WSU UC Davis Lacy to the rack

Because he shoots so many shots, and because the Cougs are so reliant on outside shooting to be successful -- they don't offensive rebound particularly well, nor do they get to the line with any real frequency -- they need Lacy to be "on" to have a shot to win, as was evidenced by the losses to Idaho and Santa Clara, teams a Pac-12 program should be able to beat without a great night from its star. Alas, this is where we reside.

Surprises, pleasant variety

They're surprisingly watchable! I've said before that Ken Bone's greatest sin, beyond the losing, was making watching WSU basketball a torturous experience. This team, while not really any "better" by objective measures, certainly is better by the subjective measure of "watchability." The energy created by the faster tempo is palpable, and you're going to get some fun transition moments like the ones shown above. Entertainment is worth something.

Josh Hawkinson is good. If your last recollection of Hawkinson is as a pudgy-faced freshman who got shoved around the floor in the few minutes he played, you're going to have to let that go. He's still pudgy-faced, but he's showing why Bone was so high on his potential: He's averaging a double-double through the first 12 games . Hawkinson has shown an ability to score in a variety of ways, both in the post and from a face-up position, and he's got a tremendous knack for rebounding.

WSU UC Davis Hawkinson highlights

Hawkinson actually is leading the team in offensive rating (an efficiency metric) and is sixth nationally -- yes, nationally -- in defensive rebounding percentage, pulling down three of every 10 opponent misses when he's on the floor. Some of that has to do with the fact that he's surrounded by so many poor rebounders, but still: That's some excellent production. The sophomore is going to be a useful piece for Kent for some time to come.

Ny Redding can play the point. When a coach has a short time to put together a class at a school that isn't exactly a hub for high-level recruits, you really just hope to get at least one useful player in the group. It appears Kent accomplished that with Redding, who looks like a keeper at point guard. He's assisting on 35 percent of WSU's baskets when he's on the floor, the highest mark of any WSU player in the era (post-2002). Only Reggie Moore in 2012 is close.

Here are a few of his five assists from Sunday:

WSU UC Davis Redding pick and roll 1

WSU UC Davis Redding pick and roll 2

WSU UC Davis Redding to Railey

He's turning the ball over a bit too much, which is to be expected for a freshman -- he had eight (!) against UC Davis, and that's unacceptable. It'll probably continue to be a struggle against the elevated guard play in the Pac-12. But you can see the skill.

Ike Iroegbu fits in Kent's system. For whatever reason, Iroegbu spent most of last season in Bone's doghouse, frequently subjected to tongue lashings after a sloppy play. The truth is that WSU's walk-it-up style wasn't a fit for Iroegbu, who is now flourishing -- there have been a lot of transition buckets like the one above. Check out the difference in his production between last year and this (stats via Sports Reference):

Season G PER TS% eFG% AST% TO% USG% ORtg OWS
2013-14 31 10.3 0.476 0.435 18.9 18.7 21.6 92.3 0.0
2014-15 12 15.1 0.583 0.550 25.2 18.2 19.5 110.0 0.6

That "OWS" stat? That's offensive win shares -- a single stat that tries to measure a player's actual contribution to winning. It's cumulative, meaning Iroegbu already has contributed more to the team in 12 games this year than he did in 31 games last year. That seems right to me.

He'll never be a pure point guard (as it appears Bone wanted him to be), but the way he's being used, he doesn't have to be. Redding holds that spot down most of the time, allowing Iroegbu to focus on scoring when they share the floor. When Redding heads to the bench, Iroegbu is able to play the point competently.

Brett Boese can shoot! Boese was one of those guys who was reputed to be a shooter, but we never really saw it in games. No longer! He's playing just 16 minutes a game, but he's shot the second-most threes on the team (behind Lacy), making them at a 40 percent clip. That's a useful skill.

Surprises, less pleasant variety

Invisible Que Johnson. I assumed Johnson had to come on strong in his sophomore year for this team to be competitive. He hasn't done that. He's been less assertive on offense and has struggled to make baskets when he finally does take shots. Johnson scored 14 points against the Aggies on Sunday, but that was his first game in double digits since scoring 10 against Missouri State when he was the catalyst behind an overtime victory.

That felt like it might be a turning point. It wasn't -- he's got six games of four or fewer points this season, including a pair of goose eggs. Let's hope something clicked yesterday, because he's clearly talented.

Junior Longrus still has no offensive game and can't defensive rebound. Let me preface this by saying that Longrus does some nice work defensively, and he pulls down a fair amount of offensive rebounds. But I hoped he'd have pieced together some semblance of an offensive game by now, and statistically, he's no better of a defensive rebounder than he was as a freshman, despite adding strength. The lack of development in his game has been disappointing.

Dexter Kernich-Drew has regressed. The senior from Australia has seen his role diminish from starter in the first four games to little-used reserve, playing just 34 minutes total in the past four games. His shooting has been awful, which is the worst possible thing for him, since he really doesn't contribute anything else. Kent tried to give him some rope to shoot his way out of it, but Kernich-Drew couldn't do it, and now it appears he's buried on the bench.

If there's one thing you can say about Kent, it's that he gives minutes to those who earn them with their production, a welcome departure from his predecessor. I suppose that would belong up in the "pleasant" category. Whatever.

What's it mean for Pac-12 play?

This team probably isn't bad enough to go winless in the Pac-12, but it's going to be rough. Here's how Ken Pomeroy's laptop currently sees it:

Pac-12 prediction

Now, that looks like the Cougs are being predicted to go winless, but there's actually only a 1.4 percent chance of that happening, with the probabilities adding up to a projection of four wins. Given what I've seen, that seems about right -- the Pac-12 is solid, but hardly loaded. And there are games against Oregon State and USC.

It'll be a struggle, but these guys are actually kind of fun. Hopefully it can translate into a handful of exciting results.