The 2017 NCAA tournament field is down to 12, but, with it, WSU fans are reminded that -- for the ninth consecutive year -- we Cougars didn't get to play along.
Before we finish crowning a Final Four on Sunday, let’s put the 2017 WSU season to bed by taking a look at the program’s path forward.
Let’s start with personnel. Here’s how the roster currently stands:
To review, WSU will lose four seniors off this year’s team, which finished 13-18 overall and 6-12 in the Pac-12 (tied for ninth place). It’s always concerning to lose seniors, but that’s especially concerning, because those four seniors — Josh Hawkinson, Ike Iroegbu, Charles Callison and Conor Clifford ...
- ... 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.
With apologies in advance for those of you on mobile devices, here are the full stats:
2016-17 WSU Basketball Stats
Additionally, the seniors were the team’s four most efficient players. (Hawkinson, though, was the team’s only above average offensive player in terms of efficiency).
WSU is losing all that production not from a team that contended for the NCAA tournament, but from a team that was — by one metric — actually the objectively worst of Ernie Kent’s career: The Cougars are currently No. 192 in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin rankings. (They finished 186th each of his first two seasons.)
Obviously, wins and losses are the only things that truly matter, and in that sense, WSU surely was "better" this season. However, given WSU’s performance relative to its competition (which is what Pomeroy’s laptop measures), a pretty convincing argument can be made that the improved record had much less to do with improvement by the Cougs and quite a bit more to do with factors outside of their control — namely the level of competition in the conference.
Including WSU, the 2017 version of the Pac-12 featured five teams ranked lower than 100 in Pomeroy’s metric, including No. 264 Oregon State; last year, when WSU won just a single conference game, only Stanford was sub-100 in addition to WSU. And if you want to take it a little further, this season was remarkably similar to Kent’s first season: five total sub-100 teams, Cougs win seven conference games. Ernie Kent has won 16 league games in three years, and the average ranking of opponent in those games is a paltry 116.
WSU likely will have a much tougher row to hoe next season. Oregon, Arizona and UCLA will continue to be themselves, but the bottom of the conference should be much improved — it’s hard to imagine both UW (with a new coach and defensive philosophy) and OSU (with a healthy Tres Tinkle) won’t be dramatically better, and ASU (which WSU beat twice) adds a top 25 recruiting class to give Bobby Hurley a legitimate frontcourt to complement his ridiculously potent backcourt.
Factor in Kent’s own history of his best teams being senior laden and it’s difficult to see next season as the one in which the program takes a big step forward, barring a major influx of talent.
That’s not to say there aren’t pieces. Malachi Flynn was excellent for about two-thirds of the season, providing steady ball handling and excellent three-point shooting from the point guard spot as a true freshman. His play dropped off in the final third of the season, likely due to the heavy minutes he played, but one could expect him to become more assertive in his playmaking and scoring next season. He’s an excellent building block.
In terms of scoring punch to replace the departing players, Kent will definitely be looking to Robert Franks. Although the production from the rangy forward wasn’t anything eye popping this year — 6 points and 3 rebounds per game — his role did increase as the season went on, and he did give WSU more and more. Announcers love to tell us what a good shooter he is in practice, and Franks isn’t shy about letting it fly in games, although it hasn’t quite translated. He’ll certainly relish the opportunity to take on a prominent scoring role as a junior.
Guards Viont’e Daniels and KJ Langston and forward Jeff Pollard round out the returning players from this year’s rotation. Daniels has shown an outside jumper that is at least a credible threat and appears to have the skill set to be a pretty good defender, but in two years, he hasn’t shown that he has the potential to elevate himself into a key role. He’s a candidate to move into the starting lineup, but it’s probably more likely he continues to come of the bench.
Pollard is a workmanlike forward whose best asset (for now) is his basketball smarts; he likely continues to come off the bench, also, but with a much-increased role. Langston, frankly, looked overmatched as a sophomore juco transfer and probably shouldn’t be counted on for a role much beyond what it was this season.
The challenge here — beyond the paltry cumulative minutes played the handful of returners outside Flynn — is that none of them have proven they can be a consistent scoring threat. That’s obviously not prohibitive, but it’s a lot of uncertainty, especially when only two of the returning players have flashed anything resembling a "primary scorer" skill set.
That means much will depend on the newcomers, of which there will be many. However, on the surface, the newcomers don’t appear to fit the "major influx of talent" descriptor.
First off, the recruiting class, as it currently stands, features just two players: juco transfers Kwinton Hinson and Davante Cooper from Tyler Junior College.
A 6-foot-4, 215-pound shooting guard, Hinson could very easily slide into a starting role. He was a competent outside shooter the last two seasons, making 35 percent of his 291 threes. That’s solid, if unspectacular, but he’ll also provide some much-needed defensive length and strength on the perimeter for a team that started a trio of guards who were all around 6-1 this season. Odds are pretty good he’ll be at least a solid contributor.
Cooper, a 6-11/235-pound forward, seems like less of a sure thing. He actually had the better offer sheet of the two, reportedly with offers from Oklahoma State, Purdue and Oregon State. However, after transferring from Bradley — where he barely played as a freshman on one of the worst teams in college basketball — to Tyler, he didn’t exactly light the juco world on fire during his one season: He averaged just 4 points and shot a stunningly low 40 percent on two pointers, although he did grab six rebounds a game and block 37 shots.
Of those things, the shooting percentage is by far the most troubling; you would expect a Division I prospect to be around 55-60 percent against the lower competition, no problem. The interior defenses of the Pac-12 offer a much, much higher level of competition.
What makes next season unusual is that WSU also will add a trio of players who redshirted as freshmen: Guards Milan Acquaah and Jamar Ergas, and forward Arinze Chidom. Redshirts in basketball are increasingly rare, so having three incoming players redshirt adds a strange dynamic.
Acquaah would have played a significant role this season had he not suffered an injury before the first game. He recovered to the point where he was a full participant in practices for much of the season, and observers have said he was impressive. Also a point guard, he’ll likely join Flynn and Hinson in the starting lineup, giving the Cougs a pair of good ballhandlers in the backcourt. (And maybe even three; I can’t speak to Hinson’s skill there.) That should help Kent coax more scoring out of Flynn.
Ergas is a freaky athlete, but he’s also an unknown. Chidom was very light coming into WSU, and is still only listed at 200 pounds despite being 6-foot-9. Expecting either of those two to make a major impact is probably unreasonable.
Here’s how I see the depth chart shaping up. (Again, apologies for those of you on mobile — in your presentation, think of it like 1st/2nd/3rd units.)
2017-18 WSU Basketball Projected Depth Chart
|Malachi Flynn (So.)||Milan Acquaah (Fr.*)||Kwinton Hinson (Jr.)||Robert Franks (Jr.)||Davante Cooper (Jr.)|
|Milan Acquaah (Fr.*)||Kwinton Hinson (Jr.)||KJ Langston (Jr.*)||Arinze Chidom (Fr.*)||Jeff Pollard (So.)|
|[Recruit?]||Viont'e Daniels (Jr.)||Jamar Ergas (Fr.*)||Jeff Pollard (So.)||Arinze Chidom (Fr.*)|
Which brings us to the last personnel question: What’s Kent going to do with those (at minimum) three scholarships he’s still got in his pocket?
He doesn’t appear to be in the mix for any big-time recruits. Perhaps he can do something he hasn’t yet done at WSU: Land a grad transfer who is a proven scorer and immediately ready to contribute. Schools that aren’t on track to contend for an NCAA tournament berth aren’t real popular landing destinations for those kinds of guys, but that’s what the Cougs need, particularly in the front court. In lieu of (or in addition to) that, taking on a transfer or two who have to sit out the year wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either. The roster is already very young, and adding more young guys probably isn’t going to make WSU better next season — or even, necessarily, the year after that.
Then, there are other questions. Can WSU take some steps forward on the defensive end? To be honest, that’s probably a more pressing issue than finding scorers, because something has to change; having a squad made up primarily of seniors that could only come up with the 207th best defense (by adjusted points per possession) is, frankly, embarrassing for a high major program and indicative of major coaching problems.
We know Kent’s never going to be a defensive wiz, so it’s probably past time to make a change to his coaching staff, which doesn’t recruit well, either. Anyone on your staff needs to be pretty darned good at one or the other, and to have a couple of guys who don’t appear to be able to produce much in the way of results on either of those fronts is unacceptable.
(Of course, this would require Kent to fire one of his friends — he’s not canning Curtis Allen, who is the staff’s lead recruiter in Washington — and that seems unlikely.)
Additionally, will WSU ever actually play Kent’s desired style? His first season was the closest the Cougs have come: WSU was 65th in average possession length on offense, shot a ton of threes, and used transition opportunities to get to the free throw line, just as Kent’s successful offenses at Oregon had done. The Cougs jumped from 233rd in adjusted points per possession in Ken Bone’s last season to 78th in Kent’s first. It generated a lot of optimism among skeptics, including myself.
However, the past two seasons, WSU has finished around 200th nationally in average possession length, finished 250th or below in ratio of three-pointers to two-pointers, and finished worse than 300th in the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts.
Can you imagine Mike Leach running the ball 60 percent of the time? That’s the rough equivalent of just how far the Cougs have moved away from what Kent has tried to do in his career.
Jacob Thorpe wrote an excellent piece on how Kent believes Flynn and Acquaah are precisely the two guards he needs to move the offense in the direction he wants. The frontcourt figures to be much more fleet of foot next season than it was this season. Perhaps year four will be when we finally see Kent’s grand plan starting to come together.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Think of this year’s Utah, which won 20 games overall and 11 Pac-12 games. Think of Cal, which won 21 and 10 and made it to the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Think of the fact that neither of those teams made the NCAA tournament. And think of how far WSU is from those guys.
Yep. Lots of work to be done.