It wasn’t always pretty and it was never really as comfortable as it seemed like it should have been, but the Washington State Cougars kept the Idaho State Bengals at bay to rebound from their first loss of the season and claim a victory, 72-61.
The Cougars improved to 2-1 on the young season, which the Bengals dropped to 1-2 against Division I competition.
WSU separated themselves early in this one, as runs of 9-2 and 10-2 were sandwiched around a pair of free throws. Five different players scored as the Cougs took an early 13-point lead. The run was keyed by four turnovers by the Bengals, which would be a recurring theme; in all, ISU would cough up the ball a whopping 20 times.
The Cougs maintained a double-digit lead for a while, but late in the first half, Idaho State whittled the lead down to just four with an 8-0 run, and the margin would be just five points in favor of WSU heading into the locker room.
WSU started the second half almost as hot as the first one, again going on a 9-2 run to extend the lead back to 12. The Bengals would occasionally make a couple of buckets in a row to get within a few possessions, using their rebounding advantage to hang around, but they never got closer than seven points as the game constantly hovered around the 10-point mark before WSU finally went up by 14 with just under three minutes to play. The Cougars’ win probability, according to kenpom.com, never dropped below 93% after tipoff.
CJ Elleby was the star, scoring 23 points on just 14 shots; he also added eight rebounds and seven(!!) steals. Isaac Bonton added 15 points, and Jeff Pollard dropped in 11. The defense, keyed by all those turnovers, held ISU to 0.92 points per possession — about what you’d expect.
A few other notes from the game:
- The Bengals really controlled the offensive glass, grabbing 40% of their own misses; it led to them shooting 53% from inside the arc, allowing them to stay in the game despite shooting just 27% on 21 3-point attempts.
- Starting point guard Jaylen Shead rolled his ankle in the second half and didn’t return. It looked bad — he couldn’t put any weight on it after it happened — but you never know how ankle injuries are going to go.
- Freshman Noah Williams, who had impressed in the first couple of games with his length on defense, didn’t play. Kyle Smith said after the game that it was a coach’s decision.
Three games isn’t a huge sample size, but it is roughly 10% of the season; additionally, the Cougs have played three teams of varying quality both home and away. It seems like we now can start to formulate some solid ideas about this team, so let’s try and do that.
What have we learned?
CJ Elleby is the difference maker. I mean, we knew he was going to be *a* difference maker, but the last two games have really underscored that this team is probably going to go as far as Elleby can take them.
The offense struggled mightily against Santa Clara earlier this week when he struggled, but it’s been pretty darn good in the other two games when Elleby was on the ball. And that’s the part that’s key: He probably needs to do just a little more hunting for his shot. He disappeared for the early part of the second half while the Cougars struggled to put space between themselves and the Bengals, and Bonton was all too happy to fill the void.
That’s a problem, because so far this season, Bonton’s efficiency has been much too low for a player taking as many shots as he is. Elleby is already in a high-usage role, but Bonton actually is ahead of him in both usage and percentage of shots taken despite lagging way behind Elleby in offensive rating. By that metric, Elleby has been about 15% better than the average offensive player, while Bonton has been about 10% worse. That’s a pretty significant gap, and those two need to flip their roles in the offense.
Turnovers are everything. When Kyle Smith took over, we looked at the statistical profile in his coaching history and concluded a number of things about what the Cougs would try to do. Most of that has come to pass, but there has been one notable difference: WSU is forcing a ton of turnovers on defense. Opponents are coughing it up on 25% of their possessions, which would be a high for Smith’s career (2013 Columbia at 20% is highest) and a high for WSU in the kenpom.com era (24% in 2005). Smith confirmed on the postgame show that it is, indeed, a purposeful strategy.
Why the shift? I’d guess it has to do with two things. First, the team lacks interior size, which is giving them problems both defending the paint and securing defensive rebounds. If you’re having a hard time contesting shots and a hard time grabbing misses, it’s probably a good strategy to try and keep the other team from getting shots up at all. But second — and maybe more importantly? — they’re using it to jump-start the offense and get some easy points when points have been hard to come by.
Time will tell if they can keep this up — or if they even feel like they need to — but for now, it’s an important part of what they’re trying to do.
There are better days ahead for the offense. If the Cougs could have made even a reasonable percentage of their open threes in this one, they’d have blown the Bengals out of the building — they were just 3-of-17. Bonton finally hit his first 3 of the year, bringing him to 1-of-16. He’s a much, much better shooter than that.
The halfcourt offense looked to be a little more fluid in this one, which was probably a function of both the Cougs and the woeful Bengals. Shead looked to be a bit more effective in his role, but we’ll have to see what’s up with the ankle; Jervae Robinson is the backup at the point, and he’s a vastly different player — solid on defense, but extremely limited on offense. Better halfcourt offense will also hopefully help Bonton feel as if he doesn’t necessarily need to carry the load on his own, as he’s been given a ton of latitude by Smith. (Too much, in my opinion.)
Regardless, it’s not hard to envision the offense getting quite a bit better in the near term.
Defensive rebounding is going to be a challenge. It was painful to watch Idaho State get so many offensive rebounds in this one, but it wasn’t a huge surprise; the Bengals are known to attack the glass, and the Cougs’ lack of size is notable. The rough thing about it is that defensive rebounding has been a big part of Smith’s teams’ defensive identity.
I will say this: There were stretches in this one where it seemed like the Cougs just weren’t scrapping as hard as they needed to in order to secure a loose ball, and I’m guessing Smith’s going to be a little disappointed when he watches the video.
The Cougars will be in action again on Thursday when they host Nebraska Omaha. That game tips off at 4 p.m. PT and will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.