The WSU Cougars are in Los Angeles to take on USC tonight (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network). Roughly four weeks ago, the Cougs welcomed these same Trojans to Beasley Coliseum, and like the promise of a clean slate on that New Year's Day, that game brought the promise of a new Pac-12 season.
The unblemished conference record -- bolstered by a whipping of New Mexico just a few days prior and the achievement of the Cougars in Pac-12 play last year -- meant you could find plenty of optimism in certain corners of the internet.
USC promptly embarrassed the Cougs, the Trojans stealing and dunking their way to a 24-point lead just 13 minutes into the game before cruising to a 90-77 victory. It was pretty much this over and over and over:
The Cougars, to their credit, came back to beat UCLA two days later, but five consecutive losses have ensued, and most of the optimism has faded as WSU has dropped to 1-6 in conference play and 9-10 overall.
I could spend a few hundred words talking about how the Cougars might be able to win a game that they honestly have very little chance of winning (USC is much more highly rated than WSU and 11-0 at home -- including a sweep of the Arizona schools last time the Trojans were at the Galen Center -- while WSU is 1-5 away from Pullman), but it doesn't seem very interesting to me to attempt to break down a game that kenpom.com forecasts the Cougs having a roughly 1-in-10 chance of winning.
WSU certainly can win the game, because SPORTS. But if it happens, it'll probably involve an unforeseen circumstance that I probably couldn't pinpoint right now even if I tried.
So, instead of focusing on all the ways USC is much better than WSU, let's talk about one of the cooler developments of this season, something upon which you can affix your eyes tonight, even if the game isn't competitive: The emergence of Ike Iroegbu.
Iroegbu had what was his defining game in an otherwise excellent individual season last time out, nearly carrying WSU to a victory over Colorado on Saturday. His final line: 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting in 35 big minutes. Without his contribution, that game wouldn't have been close.
And it's not like it came completely out of nowhere; he's been a force all season. Let's take a closer look at how he's developed.
Iroegbu came to Pullman as one of the more highly regarded recruits of Ken Bone's tenure. A tremendous athlete, he was more of a scoring guard trying to transition to the point in college. His first year was a rough one under the constraints of Bone's deliberate slow-down offense, but since then, all he's done is improve, and he's now thriving under Ernie Kent.
How much so? This first table shows you a few metrics that attempt to quantify a player's overall contribution to the team -- Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares (and Win Shares per 40 minutes), and Box Plus/Minus. All have increased substantially this season:
Ike Iroegbu efficiency stats
So, how has he done it? I see three things. Check out his performance per 100 possessions over his career, and take note of the change in his 2-point attempts, his 2-point percentage and his 3-point percentage:
Ike Iroegbu per 100 possessions
In fact, if we dig a little bit deeper into those 2-pointers, we find this (via the indispensable hoop-math.com): The proportion of his shots that are coming at the rim is now up to 48 percent (2014-15: 42 percent), and his makes on those attempts has shot all the way up to a whopping 66 percent -- a nearly 20 percent increase from last season.
Sixty-six percent isn't just good -- that's absolutely spectacular for a guard ... and would even be considered good for a big man. (Josh Hawkinson makes 62 percent of his shots at the rim; Conor Clifford, 72 percent.)
Now, let's dig a little deeper into the 3s. He's not really shooting them with greater frequency, but he's now making 50 percent of them. FIFTY PERCENT. And here's what's even crazier about that -- beyond the fact that he's making 50 percent(!!!) of his 3s with an unorthodox jumper: Fewer than half of those makes come with an assist attached.
Now, this might not seem like a huge deal to you. But it's a generally accepted truth that 3s taken off the dribble are a lower percentage shot than those that are spot up/catch/shoot. The creator of hoop-math.com, Jeff Haley, once told me that about 85 percent of all made threes are assisted.
Basically, Iroegbu is doing something you're not supposed to do and having greater success doing it than you'd expect from someone doing it the way you're supposed to. That's crazy awesome.
When you combine those three factors, it's not difficult to see how Iroegbu has become the scorer that he has. Yes, he's still a bit of a liability in terms of turnovers; his efficiency would absolutely skyrocket if he ever got those under control. But as it stands now, he's become WSU's most potent offensive weapon -- someone whom defenses must respect for his shot and for his ability to drive into the lane.
Even if WSU can't keep up with USC tonight, that's the kind of weapon that's pretty fun to watch.