You would be forgiven if you didn’t realize that the Washington State Cougars are going to tip off the 2019-2020 basketball season on Thursday, when they host the Seattle Redhawks at Beasley Coliseum. (The game starts at 6 p.m. PT, broadcast on Pac-12 Network.) That’s actually a couple of days after most everyone else.
We haven’t written or talked much about the team (although we did do a podcast); some of that is that we’re still in the midst of football season with a critical stretch coming up for Mike Leach’s crew to get bowl eligible, but a lot of it is just that it’s been years and years since we’ve had a legitimate reason to get excited for the start of a basketball season.
Hopefully, this (not as) quick and dirty (as we originally planned) preview will convince you that this year could be different, and the Cougs just might be worth your time. Here’s a list of not-at-all-made-up FAQs to get you up to speed.
Ernie Kent killed my will to care. I haven’t paid attention to the team in years. Why should I start now?
Well, let’s start here — this picture has finally, mercifully, been retired:
That’s reason to celebrate, right? Of course, you likely need a bit more than the firing of the least successful basketball coach in school history to convince you that you should give the Cougs more than a passing glance, starting on Thursday.
This is where the guy who replaced him comes in: WSU athletics director Pat Chun made what is widely viewed as a shrewd hire, luring Kyle Smith to Pullman. He has been successful at his previous two stops, leading the low-major Columbia Lions and mid-major San Francisco Dons to some of their most successful seasons in recent history.
After arriving at WSU, Smith turned over nearly the entire roster — only five players remain from last season after three seniors graduated and five others transferred. The departures have been replaced by a mix of veterans (there are two grad transfers and two jucos with Division I experience) and freshmen with potential, which should mitigate the kind of cratering that can sometimes take place in these kinds of transitions.
What does Kyle Smith bring to the table?
There’s no getting around the fact that WSU is one of the toughest high-major jobs in the country, so Chun did his due diligence in trying to understand what has worked at WSU in the past. What was clear was that the Cougars needed some sort of systemic edge in order to be competitive, and Smith gives them as good of a chance of doing that as anyone with a multi-prong approach that couldn’t be more different than his predecessor.
First, Smith is heavily influenced by analytics. Known as “Nerdball,” he and his staff measure quite literally every action on the court during every game — and every practice! — in order to evaluate his roster and incentivize the actions that lead to winning basketball within his system. Playing time is determined by how players grade out. He and his staff also rely heavily on advanced stats to scout opponents — and themselves.
Of course, that’s not something you’ll be able to see on the court. Here’s what you will actually notice: The foundation of Smith’s philosophy is defense, which will be a welcome sight to fans who pine for the days of Dick and Tony Bennett. All three of his teams at USF ranked in the top 125 in adjusted defensive efficiency, a point-per-possession metric that adjusts for opponent level; the Cougars never ranked above 188 under Kent and had three seasons at 278 or worse, including 284 last season.
In looking at the historical peripheral statistics of Smith’s nine previous teams, it’s clear you can count on certain things, year-in and year-out, from his man-to-man defense:
- They will be above average at defending 2-pointers;
- They will do everything they can to suppress opponents’ 3-point attempts, and the ones opponents do get off will be heavily contested;
- They will dominate on the defensive glass.
No more clueless rotations and half-hearted closeouts — this will be a highly organized group that will make opponents work: Last season, USF opponents had an average possession length of 18.1 seconds, which was the 46th longest in all of Division I. (By comparison, the Cougars were 199th at 17.4 seconds.)
Offensively, he has run a Princeton-style system that traditionally has yielded lots of 3-pointers and a high percentage of 2-point makes, but it’s been adaptable to the skill sets of his personnel, so it will be interesting to see how that shakes out this season.
Does this mean there’s a chance they won’t be terrible?
There’s definitely a chance! KenPom.com — the analytics site from stats guru Ken Pomeroy — projects the Cougars to rank 164th. If that sounds pretty terrible ... well, yes, it’s pretty bad, but please understand that Kent never had a team rank higher than 186 and bottomed out last season at 207. The Cougs should be much improved, even if they aren’t actually good yet.
Why the reason for optimism? It has almost exclusively to do with an expected improvement on the defensive end — Pomeroy’s laptop projects the Cougars to soar to 180th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which almost certainly is a nod to Smith’s history as a coach whose teams produce excellent defensive results.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that even with the improved ranking, Pomeroy’s laptop projects the Cougs to be only 12-17 overall and 5-13 in the Pac-12. The nonconference schedule isn’t exactly tough, but it’s also not as soft as some of the ones Kent put together. Nowhere is that more evident than in the first two games: Seattle U and Santa Clara are both beatable, but both are projected to rank higher than the Cougs this season, which means both games also are eminently loseable. There’s also a game on the Cayman Islands against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (with others against solid competition that depend on results) and a game in Spokane against the New Mexico State Aggies, who actually are the highest ranked team in the nonconference schedule, checking in at No. 64.
One thing that helps is that it’s been years since the Pac-12 has been any kind of juggernaut, and this year is no exception. Because they are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the opposition, there’s a chance that with some toughness and a little luck, the record ends up hovering around .500.
But ... there’s going to be a transition, for sure. With so many new parts, and with the returning players being asked to do very, very different things than they were asked to do under the previous coach, we’ll likely see some growing pains on both ends of the floor, particularly early in the season.
Who are the players leading this charge to mediocrity?
These guys started each of the team’s two scrimmages, so we can infer that they’ll be the starters on Thursday:
- PG: Jaylen Shead (RS-Sr.)
- SG: Isaac Bonton (Jr.)
- SF: CJ Elleby (So.)
- PF: Allaž Kunc (So.)
- C: Jeff Pollard (Sr.)
There’s really only one surprise in there: As a freshman, Kunc played extremely limited minutes and wasn’t very effective in those minutes. But the sophomore from Slovenia — who did flash an ability to shoot — must be doing a lot of things right within the Nerdball universe.
The backcourt is new. Shead was a late addition to the roster, grad transferring in from the Texas State Bobcats, while Bonton is a juco who signed last spring after Smith took over. Shead is a pass-first point guard who started all 32 games last season on a team that won 24 games and advanced to the CIT. Some of his best games last year came against his best competition, so he is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the step up to the Pac-12. Bonton, meanwhile, is best categorized as a combo guard; he scored a bunch at Casper College, but he’s certainly gives WSU a second capable ball handler within its offense, something Smith prefers. They should be an upgrade over last year’s starters.
Pollard is a name that is surely recognizable to you if you’ve paid any attention at all to the team over the past three seasons. He doesn’t wow anyone with stats and he’s certainly not what anyone would call athletic, but as the archetype for the “fundamental big man,” he’s smart, he’s an excellent communicator on defense, and he’s absolutely killer at boxing out on rebounds. Smith had to re-recruit him to WSU after he explored a grad transfer
It would be a bit surprising if this lineup wasn’t pretty fluid, particularly early in the season. Other guys who could work their way in there — and should see heavy minutes off the bench — include Marvin Cannon, a 6-foot-5 guard/small forward who showed last year as a sophomore that he can be a defensive presence with his length and athleticism; Deion James, a 6-8 grad transfer with loads of experience in the frontcourt; and Daron Henson, a 6-7 juco whose best skill is shooting 3s.
There are a quartet of freshmen who are each interesting players in their own way — Noah Williams (6-5 guard and son of WSU luminary Guy Williams), DJ Rodman (6-6 guard/small forward and, yes, son of Dennis), Volodymyr Markovetskyy (7-1 center from Ukraine) and Ryan Rapp (6-5 guard from Australia). Based on nothing more than recruiting rankings, you’d expect Williams to force his way into some games; based on positional need, you’d expect Markovetskyy to get 10-20 minutes a game backing up Pollard.
And then, of course, there’s the linchpin to the season — the team’s most gifted player: Elleby.
Tell me more about CJ Elleby. Wasn’t he headed to the NBA or something?
Bang-up job with the first part of this preview, Jeff. I (Craig) am here now to take over for the rest the the way starting with the really fun part where I get to talk about how Elleby is awesome. To set the stage, let’s look at a choice sampling of lyrics from a song that is both extremely turn-of-the-millenium and a massive (and cringey in retrospect) friend zone anthem:
“He’s everything you want. He’s everything you need. He’s everything inside of you that you wish you could be.”
Forget all the whiny stuff in the rest of the song, I like to imagine those three sentences describe how Smith feels about Elleby. Unlike the subject in the song, Smith gladly will deploy Elleby in his starting lineup, and for as many minutes as he can play.
Why is Elleby everything that Smith wants? We know Smith likes multi-tool players that can do a few different things well. The difference with Elleby is that he does a few things exceptionally, and he has plenty of room to grow in the areas in need of improvement.
The first thing that jumps out with Elleby is his ability to grab defensive rebounds from his 6-6 frame. He was WSU’s best defensive rebounder last season — better than the much longer and bigger Robert Franks, who is now playing with the Charlotte Hornets’ G-League affiliate, and far better than Pollard. As a 200-pound freshman, Elleby gathered over 20 percent of opponents’ missed shots while he was on the floor. That’s a number you’d expect from a 6-10 center.
As Jeff pointed out above, Smith puts a strong emphasis on the defensive glass. He looks at KenPom too, and he had to be drooling at Elleby’s numbers when he signed on with Wazzu.
Sticking to the defensive side for a little bit longer, Elleby is also built to be a defender that could guard multiple positions. He showed some flashes last season, even with defense less emphasized. He looks like a fine piece on which to build an improved defense.
But that’s not all when it comes to Elleby. He’s got game on the offensive side too. Most glaringly, he is an excellent 3-point shooter, knocking down 41 percent last season along with 43 percent during conference play. Five of Smith’s teams in the past have ranked 21st or higher in percentage of shots that are 3-pointers. If he’s got guys that can shoot, he’ll let them sling it.
Elleby also possesses the ability to put the ball on the deck and create his own shot, or do the same for a teammate. He had a solid assist rate (20 percent of teammates buckets while he was on the floor) and that ticked up to 25 percent during conference play when he was commanding the ball more often.
If Elleby can be a little stronger around the basket to make a few more 2-pointers, and knock down free throws at a little higher rate, he has the potential to be an excellent offensive weapon for the Cougs.
The good news is that players typically make their biggest leaps from freshman to sophomore year, so Smith’s toolsiest guy may come back as one of the top players in the conference. Some even might say a vertical shift in Elleby’s play is on the horizon.
Which of the new guys are likely to impress the most?
Of the many new faces on the Wazzu roster, Jaylen Shead is likely to have the biggest impact. He’s a graduate transfer from Texas State, where he showed the profile of penetrate-and-distribute point guard.
Shead assisted on over 30 percent of his teammates’ baskets while he was on the floor — that was good for 70th nationally. He also was adept at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, taking almost 48 free throws for every 100 shots. We call that statistic Free Throw Rate, and that’s a number of someone who gets to the line frequently. Additionally, Shead’s a pretty strong finisher for his 6-1 size, hitting on almost 49 percent of his 2-pointers.
He turns the ball over a little more than you would like, but he is the type of point guard that can make the scorers around him better.
Defensively, his size may be of concern, but he is athletic. He picked a fair number of steals and even some blocks, all while grabbing 16 percent of defensive rebounding opportunities in 2018-2019. Much like Elleby, that’s a number that goes well beyond the expectation of his playing position and size.
It’s pretty clear why Smith targeted Shead: He’s another multi-tool guy who provides value on both ends of the floor. He’s an immediate, huge upgrade at point guard.
Helping Shead and Elleby with ball-handling duties will be junior college transfer Isaac Bonton. Expect him to provide a scoring punch as a solid 3-point shooter, as well as bringing the ability to create if his game translates to this level. He’s another guard that can crash the glass— he picked up 5.5 rebounds per game last season with Casper College.
Finally, someone that we were a little surprised didn’t get the nod as a starter for the scrimmages is Colorado State Rams grad transfer Deion James. He’s an athletic 6-8 big who has struggled a little from the floor and isn’t great at defensive rebounding, but shows three clear positive attributes: offensive rebounding, blocking shots, and handling the ball.
These three guys are only a portion of the new class, but they all represent a talent infusion that improves the roster beyond the one that Smith inherited.
What’s a realistic expectation for this season?
Broadly, you can almost certainly expect WSU to play better defense this season. Smith is emphasizing it, and he knows it is the fastest way to improve an ailing program. Not only is Smith focusing on defense, he’s also brought in more defensively talented recruits. Any improvement for the Cougs season will likely go as far as the defense can take them.
At Columbia, Smith inherited the No. 297 team on KenPom.com, which then finished No. 214. That meant just one more Ivy League win, but it did take Columbia’s overall record from 11-17 to 15-13.
When Smith arrived at San Francisco, the Dons had finished the previous season at No. 205. His first year, they finished No. 111. That translated to two more conference wins and five more wins overall.
It’s pretty clear that Smith takes programs above their expected state with regularity. It’s also pretty clear that he is able to provide immediate improvement. Can he take WSU from No. 207 to a similar jump to the 110s, as he did with San Francisco? It’s entirely possible, if the defense can take a leap while the offense remains similarly effective.
So, say WSU lands at No. 115. What would that mean for wins? With KenPom’s current No. 164 projection, the Cougs finish with five conference wins and a 12-17 overall record (not counting the tournament games that will be played). At 115, you can probably add two or three non-conference wins and two or three conference wins. Do that, and suddenly you are flirting with a .500 year or better.
It’s hard to believe that WSU could be much worse than KenPom’s current projection, but if nothing clicks and some guys with proven skills suddenly forget how to play basketball, then you could see a team in the 170s that struggles to four Pac-12 wins again.
If it goes very right, and maybe they crack the top 100 with an improved defense and offense, then a .500 Pac-12 record and 9-plus win non-conference could end in a pretty fun winning season. Of course, the defensive style may lead to some close games, and the results of those could swing the final numbers dramatically either way.
The bottom line realistic expectation is that the Cougs will be better immediately. They may be a lot better, if Smith’s history holds. That’s a refreshing thing after a half-decade of a shrug emoji for a basketball program.