It was a little ragged, as season openers often are, but the Washington State Cougars had little trouble dispatching the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, 82-70.
Two different players led the Cougars with 15 points, one of them expected (Josh Hawkinson) and one of them ... not so much (true freshman Viont'e Daniels). Hawkinson also picked up 11 rebounds to earn his trademark double-double. Que Johnson and Renard Suggs also reached double figures, scoring 11 apiece. Ny Redding dished out 5 assists.
WSU sprinted out to a 24-6 lead in the first seven minutes, keyed by 5 points from Johnson and 6 from Daniels, who came off the bench early after a scary fall sent Ike Iroegbu to the sideline to hit a pair of threes. NAU never really was able to get close after that.
So what did we learn? (Standard caveat of "it's only the first game" applies.)
First games will always be first games. WSU and NAU combined for 36 turnovers as the game generally struggled to find any kind of aesthetic flow. Eleven of Ernie Kent's 13 scholarship players logged at least 10 minutes. There was a lot of experimentation from the Cougars, and it showed in the execution on both ends of the floor.
If you were hoping to get some insight into how the rotation is going to shake out, you sure didn't get that tonight.
Hawkinson is still pretty great. Hawkinson had a nice game that looked very similar to the nice games he had last year. He didn't force the action on offense, taking the shots that came to him. But he did add one thing: He hit 2-of-3 shots from beyond the arc after only hitting 20 percent of his 35 3s a year ago. Last year, it seemed like he should have been able to extend his midrange jumper out to 3-point range, and it looks like he's done that.
The other returning guys look pretty similar. Nobody else really jumped out as having added anything major to their games, although Johnson was aggressive when he touched the ball. That was nice to see, as he scored his 11 points on 8 shots.
Some of the newcomers looked pretty darn good. At the top of that list is Daniels, who shot an astounding 5-for-5 from 3-point range. He also had 4 rebounds and 2 assists and was generally a pest on defense, as well. He was so good that he caused Dan Dickau to compare Daniels to another Federal Way grad, Michael Dickerson. (Yes, that Michael Dickerson.) That, of course, is a stupid comparison. But still, Daniels was really good!
Renard Suggs picked up where he left off in the exhibition, where he scored 18 points. One thing that's immediately obvious about him is that he's a fearless scorer -- he actually reminds me a little of Faisal Aden in his style. Time will tell if that's a good or not good thing.
Also, the front line looks to be improved. Valentine Izundu blocks shots. A lot of shots. Four of them in this game, to be exact, to go along with a bunch of dunks. He looks like he'll be pretty fun. Conor Clifford didn't play a ton of minutes, but he showed that he's a load in the block and he has excellent touch with both of his hands.
Taking the ball away has become a priority. WSU employed all sorts of strategies designed to generate turnovers, including a few different simple presses and couple of different traps, and it worked. NAU turned it over on 23 percent of its possessions, a mark that would have been the second best for a single game last season.
It's a big reason why WSU allowed just 0.90 points per possession, although not all of it. The Cougs actually limited NAU to 41 eFG%, a more than respectable mark. Izundu's rim protection had a lot to do with that.
There still were rotation breakdowns, but in all, not a bad defensive performance.
Offensive rebounding was improved. This was the other thing we highlighted in the season preview, and the Cougars picked up more than 36 percent of their own misses -- that would have been the fifth-highest percentage of last season. The great thing is that eight different players grabbed offensive boards, and none of them had more than two, so like the thing in the previous paragraph, it appears this is a coordinated effort.
Brett Boese is out of favor? The senior got just two token minutes at the end of the game. I tend to think that there will be a role for Boese on this team -- he's too good of a shooter -- but I'm guessing Kent already knows what he's got in Boese, and he doesn't need to see him right now. But I could be wrong!
In all, it was a good start to the season. The team won, Kent got to learn a little more about his guys, and there were no injuries.
The Cougars take the floor again next Friday against Idaho State. Tip off is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network Washington.