You would be forgiven if, in all your football revelry, that you didn’t know that the Washington State Cougars begin their men’s basketball season on Sunday when the Cougs host Texas Southern at 1 p.m. at Beasley Coliseum. That’s actually a couple of days later than most everyone else — teams will begin tipping off on Friday, including Texas Southern, which opens at Gonzaga.
Of course, the football team’s success is only part of the equation here; it’s been quite a while since WSU has been good at basketball, and we don’t quite look forward to the season the way we used to. Given that most of last season’s best players on a pretty bad team were seniors, only the most ardent of WSU hoops fans could name more than a couple of players on this roster.
We’re here to help with a list of not at all made up FAQs to get you up to speed.
Why should I watch on Sunday?
Because you’re a Coug, and you love supporting all your Coug sports, that’s why!
Were you looking for a more inspiring answer? I’m not going to lie to you — this team is probably going to be quite bad. Kenpom.com, which uses a relatively simple opponent adjusted computer formula for ranking teams, projects the Cougs to be the 241st best team in the country this season. That’s more than 100 spots behind the projection for the next-worst major conference team, which incidentally is the next-worst Pac-12 team: Washington.
(However, if you want to try and make the case that the AAC is a major conference, then WSU does have some company — its worst team, South Florida, is projected one spot behind the Cougs at 242nd.)
The Cougs also were a near unanimous pick to finish last in the Pac-12 by the humans in the media. So it’s not just the computers.
Wow. Why is the outlook so bleak?
Well, projections are a pretty standard formula:
- How good was the team the year before? Not good, Jim! Yes, the 2016-17 Cougs won 13 games overall six conference games, which seems not tremendously terrible. But WSU benefited from a particularly soft schedule, including a really bad Pac-12: Of their 13 wins, only one came against a top 100 kenpom team (Colorado). WSU finished rated No. 193 by kenpom.
- How much production departs from that team? The vast majority of it — Josh Hawkinson, Ike Iroegbu, Conor Clifford and Charles Callison made up 80 percent of WSU’s starting lineup, played 58 percent of all available minutes, were four of the top five scorers on the team and comprised 67 percent of the team’s overall scoring. Those players also were the team’s four most efficient players as measured by offensive rating.
- How many players return, how good are they, and how do they project? To a computer or a casual observer, the answers aren’t great here, either. The best returning player is Malachi Flynn, who started all year at point guard as a true freshman. He was pretty good for a first-year player, but here’s what the computers and humans see: A guy who was a 2-star recruit who only averaged just a hair under 10 points and 3 assists in 33 minutes a game. Robert Franks and Vionte Daniels are the only other returners of note; the juniors-to-be averaged six points and three points, respectively. K.J. Langston and Jeff Pollard, who each played spot minutes, also return. Definitely not the sort of stuff that makes people think there’s a ton of untapped potential waiting to step into the void.
- Who’s new and how good are they? Lots of people are new! There are guys who have been in the program but redshirted last year (Milan Acquaah, Arinze Chidom, Jamar Ergas), junior college transfers (Kwinton Hinson, Davante Cooper, Carter Skaggs) and even Ernie Kent’s first graduate transfer (Drick Bernstine). Oddly, there are zero scholarship true freshmen on the roster; the only one Kent signed, Tacoma’s Roberto Gittens, didn’t qualify academically. How good are the newcomers? Well, none of the recruits were considered to be the kind of top 100-150 talent that immediately transforms a program, though Bernstine should be able to provide an immediate one-season boost ... when he gets healthy. (More on that in a sec.)
Add it all up, and it’s not hard to see how observers would forecast that a team that was bad a year ago probably is going to be worse and take some serious lumps as it tries to develop a bunch of younger players.
Enough already! Give me some reason for hope.
That’s not really a question, but OK.
Flynn — who was an honorable mention to the Pac-12 all-freshman team — is a pretty nice player to have leading the offense from the point. He takes good care of the ball, and he’s a legitimate threat from beyond the arc, shooting better than 38 percent from 3-point range last season. He wore down as the season went on and struggled the most against the team’s best competition, but that’s not abnormal for a true freshman asked to log as many minutes as he was. He certainly showed enough to think there’s some real promise there.
Kent has taken a liking to comparing Flynn to former Oregon guards Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks, which I still think is kinda nuts. But his stats last season actually profile remarkably similarly to another guard recruited by Kent: Garrett Sim, who played at Oregon from 2009-2012. Sim was more of a shooting guard, but still — if Flynn develops similarly, that’s great news for the Cougs.
Then there’s Franks, a 6-foot-7/240-pound stretch four who is most likely to slide into a high-volume shooter/scorer role that this team hasn’t had since DaVonte Lacy. Franks hasn’t played a ton of minutes in his first two seasons, but he’s never been afraid to shoot: He took 24 percent of WSU’s shots when he was on the floor last season, a mark that was behind only Clifford (25) and surpassed the rate at which Hawkinson (21) and Iroegbu (20) shot the ball. The man is not bashful.
Franks is going to play a ton more minutes and he’s going to take a ton more shots. At his best, he’s a matchup nightmare for opponents — players with the length to defend him will often be slower than Franks, and quicker players will struggle with his height. In the exhibition, he was the focal point of the attack, taking 16 shots and shooting 12 free throws in 33 minutes. The question is going to be whether he can shoot it well enough for this to be a positive thing for the team. He scored 32 points on all those shots in the exhibition, and Kent believes he can be a legitimate scorer.
Daniels (6-2/175) appears to be carving out a role as a “3-and-D” guy, while Pollard (6-9/240) will remind you of a Bennett-type big man — an opportunistic scorer with excellent footwork, anticipation and communication on the defensive end.
But what about the new guys?
Someone who didn’t play in the exhibition who also will be a major contributor is Bernstine (6-8/220). He’s not much of a scorer, but he’ll fill some of the rebounding void left by the departure of Hawkinson — provided he’s healthy enough to do so. He’s been injured, and Kent made it sound like he’ll probably miss at least the first couple of games.
Beyond that, the biggest reason for the pessimism also is probably your best option for optimism: With so many newcomers, we don’t really know what we’ve got on our hands. There’s always a chance that Kent has scouted and recruited better than we realize, and that there’s more talent on this roster than we know.
I’m most bullish on Acquaah (6-3/185), who was a solid three-star recruit two years ago. He was expected to contribute right away, but injuries derailed his first season and he redshirted. Sometimes exhibitions don’t tell us a whole lot, but I think it’s notable that Acquaah played 30 minutes, racking up 21 points on just 10 shots thanks to 16 free throw attempts. He looked really, really good:
Acquaah also had five assists and four rebounds in the exhibition. For as steady as Flynn is, he didn’t flash a whole lot of penetrating playmaking ability last season; it would be a pretty major development if Acquaah was able to fill that role from the perimeter, because there doesn’t appear to be another candidate for that role on the roster.
Hinson (6-4/215), who started the exhibition in the backcourt next to Flynn and Daniels, is expected to provide some scoring punch from the perimeter, although he was sort of a non-factor in the exhibition.
As for Chidom, Cooper and Ergas? It’s tough to say. Maybe they’ll be good! I honestly have no idea. Chidom (6-9/200) played just eight minutes in the exhibition with little impact; Cooper (6-11/233) has been injured, but it sounds like there’s a chance he plays on Sunday; Ergas (6-3/182) was a healthy DNP.
OK, I’m coming around a little. Any other reasons for optimism?
Kent did overhaul his coaching staff, adding former Garfield head coach Ed Haskins and former Samford head coach Bennie Seltzer, a WSU alumnus who also has been a high profile assistant at Oklahoma, Marquette and Indiana. The general consensus is that these moves were made for recruiting purposes, but maybe they bring a fresh approach to the players from the bench? This would be particularly welcome on the defensive end, where the Cougs have been atrocious under Kent.
And then there’s this: Kent has said he wants to get back to the uptempo style that has been his hallmark for so many years. The Cougars have gotten slower in each of his three season, dipping down to 204th nationally in adjusted tempo last season. Of course, he said that before last season.
He might be telling the truth this time, though: The Cougs had 80 possessions in the exhibition (they averaged 68 in Pac-12 play last season), and their average offensive possession lasted 14 seconds — well below their 18 seconds per possession in conference play. And he said at his weekly media session that he wasn’t happy with the tempo because didn’t think the Cougs were fast enough.
In turning the roster over in the past two recruiting classes, Kent’s assembled a pretty athletic group. A real commitment to getting up and down the floor might lead to some ugly score lines at times, but it also could make them more interesting aesthetically than they’ve been.
Besides: It can actually be pretty fun getting to know a young group and watching them develop. Just be sure to bring a healthy dose of patience with you this year.