Ernie Kent's WSU hoops squad will face its toughest test of the early season when it hosts Gonzaga on Wednesday night (8 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1). The Cougs have rolled through the first four cupcakes on their schedule to get to 4-0, which may not seem like much of an accomplishment until you consider they dropped one to Idaho at home last year.
Gonzaga comes in at 4-1, with its lone loss coming by a point to Texas A&M (The Aggies are actually good this year). The Zags bounced back from that defeat by taking down UConn last Friday. Mark Few's squad has beaten Wazzu four consecutive times.
This year, Coug fans will no doubt be delighted at the absence of Kevin Pangos. The point guard tortured the Cougs in his four years. Redshirt freshman Josh Perkins takes his spot. Perkins is coming back from a broken jaw just five games into last season, early enough to claim a medical hardship waiver.
Perkins has struggled rounding into form in the first four games, He's turning the ball over a lot (33.4 of his possessions, impacted heavily by a 6-turnover performance in the opener) and in something highly surprising for a guard, he has had bouts of foul trouble. He was a top-100 player in high school, so the talent is certainly there. For the Cougs' sake, hopefully he hasn't shaken off that rust yet.
While Perkins and senior Kyle Dranginis will be bringing it up, Kyle Wiltjer is the man to watch on offense for Gonzaga. He takes nearly 32 percent of his team's shots while on the floor. Last season, the 6'10 wing/power forward was deadly from long-range, hitting on 47 percent of 144 3-point attempts. He's also very good on 2s, hitting 57 percent last year and 60 percent this season.
Wiltjer is off to a slow start from long range, knocking down just 8 of 27 so far. Could the departures of Pangos and Gary Bell be impacting his ability to get clean looks on the outside? Or is it just small sample size? It's not crazy to see a guy's jump shooting numbers dip as he draws more attention. But in any case, Wazzu definitely needs to stay close to the Kentucky transfer.
Joining Wiltjer in the front court will be far more size than WSU has contended with this season. Domantas Sabonis checks in at 6'10, 231 and is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Sabonis also display impressive touch, having hit on 71 percent of his shots this season and 86 percent of his free throws (up from 66 percent as a freshman).
The biggest Zag of all as is 7'1 Przemek Karnowski, although he hasn't used his size particularly well this season. Karnowski is garnering offensive rebounds and blocking shots at half the rate he did as a junior. He's also not a bad guy to foul, as his career free throw percentage sits below 50 percent.
Unlike last year, the Cougs may actually have the bodies to at least bother Gonzaga's size. It seems likely that Junior Longrus will draw the bulk of the load in guarding Wiltjer when he's on the floor, leaving a combination of Josh Hawkinson, Valentine Izundu and Conor Clifford to deal with Sabonis and Karnowski on the inside.
When WSU has the ball it may be tough sledding. Gonzaga has been difficult to score on thus far, boasting the third-best defensive effective field goal percentage in the country, and the lowest opponent 3-point percentage.
Texas A&M and UConn were able to barely top 1.0 points per possession against the Zags. But a more comparably effective offense to the Cougs might be Washington, and Gonzaga held the Huskies to just 64 points on 77 possessions.
Being at home helps, but Ken Pomeroy's laptop predicts the Cougs to win just 18 percent of the time. All told, it's going to take WSU's best effort on both ends of the floor to top Gonzaga.