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WSU Basketball: Cougs open Pac-12 play against USC and UCLA

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With 12 nonconference games in the books, here's what we think we know about Ernie Kent's second squad.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

While you were basking in the glory of a nine-win football season, you might or might not have noticed that the WSU basketball team got off to an 8-4 start. If you noticed, it's likely because you're a basketball fan, like me, who actually has Pac-12 Network.

If you didn't notice, it's probably because there wasn't a whole heck of a lot to grab your attention. The Cougars beat up on some pretty terrible teams at home (as expected), lost to Gonzaga and Oklahoma (as expected), had a couple of stinkers (including another[!] loss to Idaho), and finished up the nonconference portion of the schedule with a curb stomping of New Mexico* (which is presumably a not terrible team) in Hawaii.

*That one actually was pretty impressive. Of course, very few people saw it, since it was at 10 a.m. on Christmas day ... and only broadcast online. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The season is now 40 percent over and the opening of Pac-12 play against USC looms on New Year's night. While Ernie Kent spent much of these first 12 games toying with different combinations in an effort to try and figure out exactly what he had in terms of his seven newcomers, some clarity has emerged.

Here are some things we think we know about this group as you shift your attention to basketball season, which tips off against the Trojans at 6 p.m. on Friday from Beasley Coliseum. It will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.

You won't see the breakneck pace you saw last season

One of the more fun things about Kent's first season was a dramatic shift from the painfully slow pace the Cougars had slumped to under Ken Bone. The Cougars were 52nd in adjusted pace last season as they purposed to run up and down the floor at every opportunity.

If you enjoyed that ... well, you might not enjoy the Cougs as much this season. WSU actually has had longer offensive possessions this year, despite playing in an environment where the average offensive possession for college basketball has gotten dramatically shorter, thanks to the shortened shot clock. Where WSU was in the 80th percentile of offensive pace a year ago, the Cougars are now in the 30th percentile.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly why this shift has occurred. WSU still has plenty of speed at the guard position with Charles Callison and Ike Iroegbu. Kent has said he still wants to play fast, although he's also generally emphasized the need to play controlled along with it. That would make some sense if the Cougars were good at taking care of the ball in the halfcourt, but they're not.

One difference between last year and this? WSU doesn't have the same kinds of shooters on the wings it did a year ago. Many of the Cougars' transition opportunities were spot-up 3s by DaVonté Lacy, Dexter Kernich-Drew and Brett Boese. Lacy and DKD are gone, and Boese isn't playing much, so the Cougs are taking far fewer transition 3s.

Whatever it is, WSU isn't engaging in track meets the way it did a year ago.

Stuff at which WSU is pretty good

Defense. No really! If you lamented the historically awful defense employed in 2014-15 by the Cougars, you'll be pleased to know that the current defense is a lot better. Last season, WSU ranked 313th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency; this season, that's all the way up to 133rd. Not exactly Bennett-esque, but a pretty massive improvement nonetheless.

Particularly, shooting defense. The Cougars rank 67th nationally in effective field goal percentage against (what's that?). One factor is the block party Valentine Izundu has around the basket on a nightly basis; the Houston transfer rejects 17 percent of opponents' 2-pointers when he's on the floor, the best mark in the country.

Teams also are shooting an exceptionally low percentage on their 3s against WSU. It's tough to say how much of that is due to the Cougs, though; WSU has faced some bad perimeter shooting teams this year, and it doesn't seem that most defenses can actually influence opponents' 3-point percentage much. In fact, the two best 3-point shooting teams WSU has faced -- Oklahoma and Northern Iowa -- combined to shoot 17 of 42 (40 percent).

Also, stealing the ball. WSU has been taking the ball away much more than it did a year ago. A big reason for that is Callison, who looks like he might be the best ball hawk to play in Pullman since Kyle Weaver. He's 45th nationally in steal percentage, averaging nearly two steals a game.

Letting Josh Hawkinson be awesome. He won the Pac-12's most improved player award last season, and the junior forward is fresh off his first player of the week award for his performance at the Diamond Head Classic. He's averaging a double-double, leading the team in both points (16.5) and rebounds (10.5) per game. He's improved his 2-point shooting dramatically, despite generally playing away from the basket to make room for centers Conor Clifford and Izundu. He's also second in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing more than one third of opponents' misses when he's on the floor. He's a stud, even if he could stand to take a few more shots a game.

Shooting the ball. While WSU doesn't have ay high volume 3-point shooters, the Cougars have proven competent from deep. Four different players have attempted at least 33 shots from beyond the arc, and WSU is shooting 38 percent as a team -- much better than last year -- making the deep shot a weapon, despite not shooting a ton of them.

Ike Iroegbu is the main reason why. His eFG% is the highest on the team, thanks largely to shooting 56 percent (not a typo) on his 34 3s. What's even more amazing is that more than half of his 3s have been unassisted -- that's north of 80 percent for most shooters. It's a virtual certainty he can't keep up that percentage, but it's pretty cool nonetheless. He's averaging nearly 14 points.

WSU also is very good inside the arc. Besides Hawkinson, Clifford is a load in the paint, Izundu dunks just about anything he catches around the rim, and Que Johnson is shooting 54 percent on his 2s (a large number of which are midrange jumpers).

Stuff at which WSU is not so good

Turning the ball over. All that shooting should indicate an excellent offense. The reason it doesn't is simple: WSU has far too many empty possessions because the Cougars turn the ball over 21 percent of the time -- 294th nationally.

Both Callison and Iroegbu are suspect with the ball. Iroegbu gets a little bit of a pass, since he was supposed to play off the ball this year, but Ny Redding's lack of development has forced Kent to put Ike back at the point when Callison isn't on the floor. But Callison was supposed to steady the position, and he hasn't really. The bigs also turn the ball over way more than guys who don't have the ball in their hands that much should.

Getting to the free throw line. WSU ranks 313th nationally in the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. This is probably the biggest concern heading into Pac-12 play. WSU faced defenses in Hawaii that approximate what they'll face in the Pac-12, and the results weren't real pretty: The Cougs shot just 25 free throw attempts in three games, while their opponents shot 69. It's basically the reason they lost to Northern Iowa.

It's partially because the Cougars don't have penetrating guards, but it's also partly because WSU's bigs either take shots away from the basket (Hawkinson) or just don't initiate a lot of contact (Clifford).

WSU is going to face some really good defenses in conference, and beyond the fact that those free points can come in really handy, the ability to make a defense respect penetration is important to the flow of an offense. If you watched any of the Diamond Head Classic, you saw a lot of stagnation.

What it means for Pac-12 play

It will be interesting to see how the defense holds up in the Pac-12, which looks like a solid offensive conference. Will Izundu still be able to block shots effectively against more athletic competition -- without getting in foul trouble? Additionally, teams that are long on the perimeter tend to have a little more staying power on their 3-point defense, and WSU is not that. And the takeaways had tailed off a bunch until New Mexico coughed it up on one-in-four possessions.

Still, the Cougs have played four teams rated in the kenpom.com top 100 at the time of the game, and the only one to have a stellar offensive performance was Oklahoma. Gonzaga, Northern Iowa and New Mexico each had one of their five worst offensive performances of the year against WSU.

The offense is a bit worrisome. Given that the Cougs have turned it over a ton against teams that should have been able to generate that many turnovers, it's hard to fathom huge improvement now that they'll be facing better defenses. Still, so many of the errors were of the unforced variety, and that's something that can improve. Maybe it will?

Kenpom.com currently projects the Cougars for six wins in conference; if that seems low to you coming off a year in which the Cougars won seven conference games, the Pac-12 seems to be pretty dramatically improved across the board. If WSU can somehow get to eight wins, that would be a pretty significant accomplishment. But if the Cougars can't clean up some of the issues offensively, something like four wins isn't out of the realm of possibility either.

We'll find out starting on Friday against a USC team that finally appears to be playing Andy Enfield's kind of ball.