The Washington State Cougars kick off the Kyle Smith era by hosting the Seattle Redhawks in Beasley Coliseum on Thursday night (6pm, Pac-12 Network). The Cougs and Redhawks face off for the third consecutive season. In 2017, WSU took down Seattle at home. Last year, the Redhawks were victorious at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
Seattle is hardly your standard early-season cupcake. It checks in with a respectable No. 131 ranking on KenPom.com, that’s 33 spots higher than No. 164 WSU. The Cougars haven’t been ranked that high since the beginning of Ken Bone’s final season.
Jim Hayford left Eastern Washington to become the Redhawks head coach in 2017. In his first two seasons he improved on previous coach Cameron Dollar’s results, finishing in the top 200 both seasons—the only two times that has happened since Seattle’s first year back in the NCAA’s top Division in 2009-2010.
This preview focuses mostly on Seattle. If you want to get to know the Cougs, check out our not-so-quick season preview.
Seattle’s Key Players
The reason for expected improvement from Seattle this year stems from a slew of returning juniors and seniors led by the backcourt duo of Terrell Brown and Morgan Means. Both played more than 83 percent of the team’s minutes last season, and they figure to do the same this season.
Brown is the point guard and he posted a solid assist rate as a sophomore—assisting on 29 percent of his teammates buckets while on the floor. He also did that while limiting turnovers. He’s not a great shooter, and won’t shoot many threes (just over one per game last season), but the Garfield product is athletic and does push to the rim. He’s also an adept defensive rebounder (second-best defensive rebounding percentage on the team a season ago).
Means is the more impressive outside shooter, hitting on nearly 37 percent of his 159 3-point attempts as a junior. He isn’t much of a distributor, but he is fairly adept at getting to the free throw line, given the number of jump shots he takes. When he does get to the line, he is lethal, hitting 85 percent. He does not, however, finish all that well on field goals inside the arc—shooting a hair under 41 percent.
Sophomore guards Trey Hopkins and Rip Economou were sparsely used as freshmen, but did start and log the most minutes on the team in Seattle’s exhibition win over Pacific Lutheran. It will be interesting to see if that was just a trial run or if they’ll both see similar playing time against the Cougs. The Redhawks actually went with a four-guard starting lineup against PLU with 6’5 Delante Jones serving as a quasi-frontcourt player.
Myles Carter is the primary big man to watch. He’s got solid size at 6’9, 230 and is the team’s best returning defensive rebounder, shot blocker, and interior scorer. He’s joined by center Jordan Dallas. The 6’10 graduate transfer from Weber State didn’t play much in Ogden, but figures to log plenty of minutes in Seattle.
Given Seattle’s guard-heavy rotation, you’d think they push the pace. Not so much—the Redhawks were a little below the NCAA average in adjusted tempo last season. You might also expect a team with so many guards to launch 3s with high frequency—also not the case. The Redhawks were 305th in three point attempts per field goal attempt in 2018-2019.
That seems to signal a change from the way Hayford operated in his early years at Eastern Washington. Those teams played fast and shot a lot of 3s. His teams have slowed considerably over the last four seasons, however. His first Seattle squad did shoot a lot more 3s, but that was primarily driven by three players who have either graduated or left the program.
There is perhaps a chance that Hayford is getting back to his 3-point hoisting ways. Seattle took 28 3s against PLU, accounting for 42 percent of its total field goal attempts. That would have put them the squarely in the top 100 of the NCAA last season. Much of that was driven by the two new faces in the starting lineup—Hopkins and Economou, who combined to go 1-11 from downtown.
Again, that could have been Hayford testing something out. We could see those two back on the bench tonight.
Overall offensively, the Redhawks struggle to score inside—317th worst 2-point percentage last season. It would behoove them to take a few more shots from behind the arc, where they hit at the 60th-best clip. Surprisingly, that bad 2-point percentage isn’t much the product of block shots, the Redhawks were 30th-best in avoiding block shots on 2s. That suggests they are shooting a lot of mid-range jumpers.
Those jumpers are most frequently coming off individual play—Seattle was 320th in assists per field goal made. However, they were top-third nationally in avoiding turnovers. Seattle is going to make the Cougs play defense for long stretches—they had the 273rd shortest possessions last season, nearly a second above the national average.
Much like we expect from the Cougs this season, the Redhawks do most of their important work on the defensive end. They were an above average defense overall in 2018-2019 and finished 24th overall in effective field goal percentage allowed (eFG% weighs 3-pointer makes as 1.5).
The defense was buoyed by stout interior defending, where opponents shot just south of 45 percent—17th-best nationally. That was especially helpful given that Seattle likes to chase opponents off the 3-point line, allowing the 24th-lowest percentage of attempts beyond the arc.
Seattle also locked down the glass with a top 100 defensive rebounding rate. All this suggests a solid man-heavy defense with principles that are driven by data. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the type of profile you should expect to see from Wazzu this season.
It may be a product of personnel, but Hayford has adapted this no-3s, grab all the misses focus in his first two seasons at Seattle. Along with the returning talent, that’s a major factor in this year’s heightened expectations.
There are weaknesses in the defense, of course. The Redhawks send too many people to the free throw line, and they don’t force many turnovers. WSU features a revamped backcourt led by Jaylen Shead that can penetrate and draw fouls, and it should help that a new offense with a lot of new players doesn’t have to worry about the defense applying as much pressure and forcing mistakes.
The Bottom Line
Seattle is an experienced squad that has played a lot of minutes together. They have significant offensive limitations, and despite the experience they may be trying to figure out an identity at that end. Still, there’s enough talent to test Smith’s new defensive emphasis.
The Redhawks will give the Cougs trouble on defense. Wazzu will want to shoot 3s, and Seattle will be doing its best to prevent that. Carter is also a bigger and more athletic rim protector than you’d expect at most mid-major schools. He’ll match up against Seattle’s starting bigs no problem.
The interesting part will be if Seattle decides to roll with a four-guard lineup for most of the game, or if it mixes in more bigs to match a WSU lineup that figures to have four players over 6’3 most of the time, including 6’6 through 6’9 (sometimes over seven feet) at the 3, 4 and 5 positions.
It should be a tight and probably slow-paced game, and it’s a solid first test for Smith’s new program. A big win for the Cougs could suggest things are already ahead of schedule. A big win for Seattle might suggest this thing is going to take a little more time. Or maybe it’s just one game and it’s the season opener and nothing really means much.
It is a game that counts, however. The first one in a new era for Cougar basketball. Make sure to enjoy that for what it’s worth.
How to Watch
Game time: 6 pm PT
TV channel: Pac-12 Networks
Stream: Pac-12.com and the Pac-12 Now app (log-in required)