With the football team's incredible season dominating our consciousness for the past couple of months, the beginning of WSU's basketball season kind of slipped under the radar for most fans.
Now that there isn't another football game immediately on tap and you noticed this morning that the Cougs are going to take on Gonzaga in Beasley (for what is likely to be the last time for a while), you need to know what you're watching when that game tips off at 8 p.m. PT on Fox Sports 1.
This will get you caught up on what you've missed.
So, how are they doing?
Wow, that's pretty great!
Well, sort of. I mean, it's better than not being 4-0, but the Cougs have played some tremendously weak competition, grabbing wins over Northern Arizona, Idaho State, Cal State-Los Angeles and Texas Southern (combined record against Division I competition: 1-13). All the games have been played at Beasley Coliseum.
Still, the Cougars' average margin of victory in the four games has been 15, which isn't eye popping, but WSU was firmly in control of each game as Ernie Kent tinkered with lineups. Because of that, the play has been pretty ragged at times, but WSU has held steady in Ken Pomeroy's ratings since the beginning of the year. They've basically done what they were supposed to do.
Who has played well so far?
Forward Josh Hawkinson and guard Ike Iroegbu have both been nails so far this season. They're 1-2 on the team in points per game, and beyond that, both have been incredibly efficient with their scoring.
You might remember Hawkinson as the guy who collected 20 double-doubles last season -- fourth most in the nation. He's doing it again this year, having already picked up a pair in his three games (he missed one game with a groin injury) on his way to averaging 18 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Hawkinson has been absolutely deadly with the ball in his hands this year; he's hit 57 percent of his 2s, many of them midrange jumpers. He's even made a couple of 3s. But where his game has really improved so far is that he's dealing with the added attention by picking up a couple of assists a game while not giving it away.
Iroegbu, meanwhile, has gotten off to a really hot shooting start in averaging 13.8 points. His true shooting percentage (which combines 3s, 2s and free throws) is in the top 40 nationally -- unusual for a guard. That's thanks to making 7-of-12 (58 percent) from 3 and 14-of-16 (88 percent) from the line. He's not shooting it much, but he's been remarkably effective when he has.
Who else is important to know?
Que Johnson: He's the third player averaging double digits for the Cougs (10.8 points), but he hasn't been quite as stellar in getting there as Hawkinson and Iroegbu. The mercurial forward hasn't gotten any less mercurial this season; he's taken a ton of jumpers and hasn't shot them particularly well -- just 37 percent on those shots, per hoop-math.com. We're still waiting for the junior to deliver on all that promise we've been told is there.
Valentine Izundu: Izundu is a transfer from Houston who is new to the team this year. Here's basically all you need to know about what he's doing this year.
— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) November 21, 2015
Izundu is rejecting 25 percent of opponents' 2-point shots -- best in the country. Think about how absurd that is: When Izundu is on the floor, literally one of four shots inside the arc is being blocked ... by him.
He's a limited offensive player. But let's not pretend that blocks and dunks aren't a whole bunch of fun.
Renard Suggs: The junior college transfer is a straight scoring guard. He's athletic and has a knack for finishing around the rim. The 3-point shot hasn't really come around yet (just 5-of-16), but he's been Kent's primary scoring option off the bench. He can be a lot of fun to watch.
What are some of the big team developments?
WSU isn't playing nearly as fast as last year. Remember how job No. 1 for Kent last season was to get the Cougs out and running after Ken Bone's plodding pace? WSU became one of the fastest teams in the country -- their average offensive possession was 17.3 seconds, 65th nationally. This year, they're about a half second slower, which probably doesn't seem like much, but that rates 261st nationally. They're just not pushing it in transition nearly as much. I have no idea why, but it's what's happening.
They're grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds! This is a big shift from last year, and has been a clear point of emphasis for Kent. Senior forward Junior Longrus has been huge in this respect, picking up an astonishing 20 percent of WSU's missed shots -- for context, 15 percent is pretty spectacular. It's part of what's led to the next item on this list.
The offensive effectiveness so far has come from making a lot of 2s. That's great, but WSU has played a lot of overmatched opponents with small front lines. Will that effectiveness continue against bigger and more athletic forwards and centers? Guess we'll find out tonight.
The defense is improved! But, again, this is a tough one to judge. A lot of it has to do with Izundu, so that's great. But WSU has faced a bunch of teams who lack the size to really compete in the paint with a Pac-12 school. Will that effectiveness continue against bigger and more athletic opponents? Guess we'll find out tonight!
What are some of the big question marks going forward?
Point guard is still unsettled. Kent went out and got a junior college point guard -- Charles Callison (above) -- late in the recruiting cycle so that he could allow Iroegbu to focus on scoring by moving him off the ball. That hasn't totally worked out; Callison didn't start the first game after missing a class, got dinged up in the second game and had three turnovers in the last game. And sophomore Ny Redding, the presumed backup to Callison, has regressed -- he's assisting less and turning it over more and shooting it worse. Ugh.
The result? WSU is currently ranked 277th in the percentage of offensive possessions that end in a turnover -- nearly 21 percent. This, despite playing a much more controlled, half court offense.
Kent has put Iroegbu back on the ball for extended stretches, and while e's been fine against bad competition, that's clearly not where Kent prefers him to be because that's just not the best use of his skill set. Maybe Callison can stake a claim to the position tonight.
Conor Clifford has been an enigma. The 7-foot junior college transfer -- a player Kent coveted late in the recruiting cycle last year who had a number of high major offers -- has battled two things at the beginning of this year: a knee injury and bad matchups. He scored 18 points in 21 minutes against Cal State-Los Angeles ... only to play just two minutes against Texas Southern. He's shown some really great flashes, but we're still not exactly sure what we've got.
Who will Kent rely on? Twelve different players have played at least 10 percent of the Cougars' minutes, nine have played at least 30 percent, and none have played more than 75 percent. Last year, that was 10, eight and two. He's gone deep into his bench and played a ton of combinations this year so far -- experimentation afforded by the soft schedule.
I think the last game gave us a bit of a glimpse into which players are rising to the top, though. The top five players were Longrus, Iroegbu, Suggs, Johnson and Hawkinson. That strikes me as about right for the main core of players going forward, with Callison, Izundu, Clifford, Redding and freshman Viont'e Daniels rounding out the regular rotation.
Can the Cougs actually beat the Zags?
The numbers say no, but hey -- WSU usually gives Gonzaga an excellent game in Pullman, regardless of the Bulldogs' ranking. I don't think Mark Few was able to learn much from watching WSU's first four games, and I wouldn't be surprised if Kent tried to unveil a couple of wrinkles to take Gonzaga by surprise.
Here's to hoping WSU can send this series off in style.