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WSU Cougars basketball 2016-17: FAQs for the beginning of the season

The Cougs tipped off their season on Friday. You might be wondering what you need to know about the team. We’re here to help.

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

And just like that, another college basketball season has crept up on us!

WSU’s 2016-2017 season tipped off on Friday, and while our traffic data on basketball stories tell us that most of you out there aren’t super jazzed about this development, I’m sure there are still plenty of you out there planning on at least keeping one eye on the team as football season wraps up over the next month.

So, let’s catch you up on a few things you need to know to have some idea of what you’re watching.

(A quick word: At CougCenter, you’ll often see us refer to some non-traditional stats. Here’s a primer I wrote eight years ago on the subject that explains why we do that, in detail. If you just want to know what each stat is, here’s a glossary.)

How good was WSU in 2015-16?

Not good! The Cougars finished just 9-22 overall and 1-17 in Pac-12 play. That obviously landed them last in the Pac-12, and — which rates teams on adjusted efficiency margin — ranked the Cougs No. 186 out of the 351 Division I teams. Among the six high-major conferences, only Auburn, Minnesota, St. John’s, Boston College and Rutgers were rated worse.

Well that’s bad. Will they be better?

Welllll ... that’s tough to say. There are a bunch of new players. Most of the team’s best players are back. It’s hard to believe they could be much worse. And KenPom thinks they’ll at least be qualitatively improved, projecting them as the 147th best team in the country with an 11-17 record and a 4-14 conference mark. (The latter is still projected to be last in the conference, though.) Sports Illustrated’s Dan Hanner projects them at No. 158, also worst in the conference.

(You sound unconvinced.)

New players are always nice, especially if they’re replacing guys who weren’t good. But none of these guys were highly regarded recruits, and at least two of the players who transferred likely would have been starters or at least the first couple of guys off the bench. It’s questionable as to whether even their modest production can be easily replaced by the newcomers.

Who’s Back?

Let’s start with the seniors.

The unquestionable leader is big man Josh Hawkinson, who was the team’s lone all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last season after averaging 15.4 points and 11.1 rebounds. He was the team’s lone consistently credible offensive threat (his offensive rating of 111 made him about eight points better per 100 possessions than an average player), and he’s something of a rebounding savant: He grabbed 32 percent of opponents’ missed shots last season, a mark that ranked him fourth in the entire nation. He’s an outstanding post player with a deadly midrange jumper.

NCAA Basketball: California at Washington State
Ike Iroegbu
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the backcourt, Ike Iroegbu returns. He was second on the team at 12.7 points per game, but his efficiency was only 100 — or about three points per 100 possessions worse than the average player. He also averaged 3.6 assists per game, but he’s been a bit miscast throughout his career as a point guard, given his propensity to turn the ball over. (More on that in a little bit.) He’s been at his best when he’s able to use his tremendous speed and athleticism to slice through defenses on the fast break. He also, for a time, showed a much improved 3-point shot, hitting at a greater than 40 percent rate for much of the season, but a big slump at the end sent his overall mark plummeting to 35 percent.

Conor Clifford had a rough transition to major conference basketball in his first year after a junior college stint; he began the year with an injury that appeared to impact his conditioning, and he never really got over the hump with that. He’s deadly around the basket, finishing equally well with both hands — 2-point attempts: 64 percent — but he provided very little defense and rebounding for a guy who is 7 feet tall. (Every other front court player and even two guards posted a higher defensive rebounding percentage than Clifford.)

Charles Callison was expected to bolster the point guard spot immediately as another junior college transfer and allow Iroegbu to focus on scoring, but it never really materialized; he turned out to basically be a shorter version of Iroegbu, at least stylistically.

The only junior on the roster is Derrien King, a sweet shooting 6-foot-6 wing whose consistency was hit-and-miss; he was particularly awful from 2-point range, destroying whatever efficiency potential he had.

Two sophomores return: forward Robert Franks and guard Viont’e Daniels. Both played limited minutes. Daniels is athletic, added a little bit of scoring and looked like he could develop into a real nice defensive piece, while Franks showed a solid jumper and a willingness to shoot.

Who’s gone who could have helped?

The two notable departures were Que Johnson and Valentine Izundu. Each transferred out of the program with a season of eligibility remaining, much to Ernie Kent’s chagrin — the coach placed lengthy restrictions on both of them in terms of where thy could go.

Neither player was awesome — each was fairly one dimensional (Que as a perimeter shooter, Izundu as a shot blocker) — but the roster is almost certainly worse off for their departures.

Who’s new and going to make an impact?

Malachi Flynn and Derrien King (0)
WSU Athletic Communications

Freshman point guard Malachi Flynn seems to be the popular pick in this regard. He was originally committed to Pacific of the West Coast Conference before some program issues there caused him to reopen his recruitment. Fortunately for him, WSU was desperate for point guard help. He was a potent scorer and flashy passer at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, leading to him being named the 4A state player of the year. There are questions about whether his slight frame can stand up to the rigors of major conference basketball, but early reviews are positive — he played the second most minutes on the team in both the exhibition and the opener.

Freshman big man Jeff Pollard also will play right away. His path to Pullman was a little strange: He committed to and signed with the Cougs as a lightly recruited player out of Utah, then went to a prep school for a year before signing with WSU again last season. He’s bulked up to 240 pounds on his 6-9 frame and will provide depth behind Hawkinson, Clifford and Franks.

Keith Langston, a junior college transfer with three years to play three, didn’t play in the exhibition or the opener, but was thought to be a potential impact player. As for the rest of the newcomers? Kent is toying with idea of redshirting multiple guys, which is virtually unheard of in today’s major conference basketball. That includes Milan Acquaah (who was supposed to play right away, but is dealing with an injury), Jamar Ergas, and Arinze Chidom. None of them played in the opener.

What should I expect to see when I turn on the TV?

One of the major issues for the team last year is that the program suffered from an identity crisis. Kent was billed as an uptempo coach, and his first team reflected that as he tried to make basketball fun again for guys who had been through the long, slow death march that was Ken Bone’s final season.

But as the bad results started to pile up, Kent did what so many coaches do, including Bone in his last two seasons: Kent slowed the game down to a crawl and called virtually every possession from the bench.

It didn’t work. Even a little. The roster Kent had assembled — which lacked a competent halfcourt point guard — was ill-equipped to execute such a style. That, combined with the fact that they still couldn’t defend, led to the Cougs posting a conference worst points per possession on both offense and defense.

Kent has pledged to bring an uptempo style back to the team, and in the first game, that certainly was the case: The Cougs were running up the floor at every opportunity.

But Kent also said that he wanted to solve the defensive transition problems that plagued the team last season by doing this:

So, this season, WSU is going to trade those offensive rebounds in order to slow down the other teams. That’s right, all the offensive rebounds. WSU might not get one.

As soon as a shot goes up on offense, all five players will sprint back on defense. When the Cougars shoot free throws, only one player will stay positioned on the key near the shooter. Instead of a rebounding forward, it will be a guard, who is only there to initiate WSU’s defensive press.

Now, I can sympathize with the sentiment: Nearly one quarter of WSU’s opponents’ shots last season came in transition, and of those shots, roughly half were at the rim, according to Opponents’ effective field goal percentage on transition attempts was 60, which is a really high number. Defensive transition was a disaster.

But ... completely forsaking offensive rebounding seems to run counter to what a team usually needs to do to be an offensively efficient team. Many people will remember that’s basically what Dick Bennett told his team to do, but Dick Bennett’s teams always hung their hats on defense, and he was perhaps the greatest defensive coach of his generation.

Ernie Kent ... well, Ernie is not Dick Bennett. And as last year showed, merely shooting OK is not enough to overcome being terrible on the offensive glass. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to shoot really well and almost never turn the ball over — which is basically the formula Tony Bennett used to score enough points to get to the NCAAs twice. This team doesn’t seem like one that can replicate that, but I guess we can just say “who knows?” That’s the optimism of a new season!

The other thing is that it seems that running back and bunkering on defense seems to run counter to playing an uptempo style; when you get transition buckets, there’s often a transition opportunity the other way. But maybe Kent feels like you can run on offense yourself and make your opponents walk it up, even though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team successfully do that, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything?

(And, for what it’s worth, the Cougars didn’t really employ that strategy at all in the first game. We’ll see if he was serious about doing it against more dangerous teams.)

Fine, Mr. Negative. Why don’t you get some positivity and tell me how they can be substantially improved?

We’ve already been over one: Defensively, if they can control the other team’s transition opportunities that will go a long way.

Here’s the thing, though — while poor discipline after a missed shot was problematic, another major problem was live ball turnovers. The Cougars were among the most careless teams in the country last season, ranking 275th in the percentage of possessions that ended with a turnover. Roughly 7 percent of all of opponents’ field goal attempts came within 10 seconds of a steal.

That’s where Flynn comes in. If he’s as good as Kent says he is — and Kent has invoked the names Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks in the same sentence, if you can believe that — then it will go a very long way toward making both ends of the floor stronger.

Cutting down on turnovers will give the offense more bites at the apple, so to speak, and if Flynn is able to deliver the ball to Hawkinson and Clifford in spots where they can do damage (many turnovers by Iroegbu and Callison last year came trying to do that very thing), then the offense should be better while also cutting down on the number of defensive transition opportunities.

Iroegbu is going to need to be a more consistent scorer, and King also is going to need to step up and be a legitimate threat all over the floor. Franks is going to need to show that his conditioning is at a level that he can play more than 15 minutes while also being able to grab a few rebounds and defend other frontcourt players. Clifford is going to have to give more than just strictly post scoring.

And on top of that? Probably going to need someone (or two someones) to be a lot better than we’re anticipating.