Coming into Wednesday's game with No. 9 Gonzaga, most WSU fans were resigned to the idea that it wasn't a matter of whether the Cougars would lose to the Bulldogs, but the degree to which they would. We steeled ourselves for the worst.
The worst never happened. Yes, WSU ended up losing by double digits, 81-66, a margin that nobody would describe as "close." The Zags maintained that double-digit margin throughout the game, and yet ...
WSU never truly felt "in it," but they also never really felt that out of it either.— Neil Stover (@neilstover) December 11, 2014
And considering what was expected, that's not such a bad thing.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. WSU is rapidly improving
It feels like a lot of expectations were set by WSU's early results against UTEP, TCU and UC-Santa Barbara, three losses in the first four games in which the offense was positively dreadful. Like, "the unwatchable end of Ken Bone's tenure" dreadful.
What we didn't do was give the new coach a bit of a grace period to figure some things out. (As if anyone can blame us. We're a little scarred.) You can only learn so much about your team in practice, and if we're honest, there probably is an adjustment period in returning the bench for the first time in years.
Ernie Kent is starting to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his team, and they're starting to understand what he wants out of them. The uptempo style is allowing certain players to flourish, particularly guards Ike Iroegbu and Ny Redding. While the defense is still a struggle, the offense is coming around: The Cougs have been over 1.0 points per possession in four of the last five games, with the lone exception being that horrendous shooting performance in the loss to Idaho. But even in the loss to Idaho, there were open looks.
Kent's Oregon teams were best known for their offense, and we're seeing why: This team figured to be fairly limited with offensive options, yet Redding has been surprisingly steady for a freshman, Iroegbu has become increasingly explosive, Josh Hawkinson has been able to score in the post and DaVonte Lacy has started to score like himself again.
Kent deserves credit for that. He also deserves credit for overseeing a good defensive game plan. Yes, Przemek Karnowski had his way in the first half, but that seemed like a well-thought-out decision to let him get his and keep the shooters from going off, a strategy that led to WSU trailing by a kinda manageable 10 points at the break.
I don't know if I'm convinced yet that Kent can be successful here long term, but this team looks well coached. That's encouraging.
2. WSU is still going to lose a lot of games
The Cougs were right with the Zags for long stretches of the game, as implied by Neil's tweet above. But there also were times when Gonzaga was able to stretch the lead out a bit, and those times generally were when Kent turned to his bench.
WSU has a star (Lacy), an above-average big man (Hawkinson) and some useful pieces (Iroegbu, Redding, and maybe even Junior Longrus, who does some things defensively and can offensive rebound). But it drops off in a hurrrrrrry after that. When two or three of those players left the court, Gonzaga more or less had its way. Kent recognized it and rode those first four guys as much as he could, as they each played 28 or more minutes, led by Hawkinson at 38(!) minutes.
The good news is that I think there's enough talent here to win a few conference games. But there probably will be a lot of nights like tonight in the Pac-12: The team kinda sorta hangs around, makes you feel like they're just a run or two away from getting back into it, but ultimately don't get all that close because of the ground they lose when the reserves come in the game.
And there were times when they lost ground even when the starters were in the game, thanks to their deficiencies on the front line. Hawkinson is a natural rebounder, but his strength limits him at times and his heavy minutes mean he can't spend much time defending difficult bigs; because of that, Longrus is often overmatched down low; Railey is giving them better minutes, but he's still him; Brett Boese can shoot a little, but he's got the same problem as Longrus, except with worse footspeed.
WSU has deficiencies that are going to cost them dearly at times. So it goes as Kent figures out how to restock the cupboard.
3. The disappearance of Que Johnson continues to be puzzling
There probably isn't a player on the roster with more natural talent than Que. And yet, he's been completely ineffective offensively and has apparently fallen into Kent's doghouse -- his minutes have decreased in each of the last three games, and he played just 11 minutes against the Bulldogs.
We presumed before the season started that an effective Que was one of the keys to the team not being terrible. That's probably still true, but this thing is not heading in the right direction. His offensive rating is a paltry 86 (100 is roughly average) and his effective field goal percentage is under 35.
He's fallen behind Boese on the depth chart. Boese is playing hard, but he's athletically limited in a way Johnson is not. It's clear Kent is giving opportunities to guys who are earning them. Somehow, Johnson needs to start earning those opportunities back.