The Washington State Cougars began the Kyle Smith era in style, thrashing the Seattle Redhawks 85-54 behind 27 points from CJ Elleby.
In what most observers figured would be a close game — kenpom.com projected a one-point win, while the Cougs were a roughly 3-point favorite in Vegas — WSU raced out to a 24-5 lead in the first 6:30 behind an early 15-1 run and never looked back, stretching the lead to 24 points just before halftime. The lead never dipped below 20 points in the second half and reached as high as 34 with a few minutes left in the game.
Elleby made a 27-point performance look about as easy as it could look, shooting 12-of-18 overall, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. He added seven rebounds and a pair of steals — two of the eight steals overall in what was a dominant defensive performance.
Isaac Bonton was the only other Coug in double digits, scoring 12 with seven rebounds and four assists, and freshman guard Noah Williams led the team in rebounding with nine. As a team, the Cougars turned the ball over just three times.
Perhaps nothing signifies WSU’s dominance in this game more than this: Of the 40 minutes in the game, WSU led for 39:15 and was tied for the other 45 seconds. The Cougars never trailed.
It probably won’t be like this all season, but you could hardly ask for a better start.
Hello defense my old friend ... Oh man, have we missed this. That was the kind of defensive performance that harkens back to the days of the Bennetts: Seattle shot just 37.3 eFG% (what’s eFG%?) and got up only 13 three-pointers — a paltry 24% of their attempts, well below their rate of 33% last season.
The Cougars were organized, they were hustling, and they forced the Redhawks into a plethora of difficult shots. And when Seattle missed its shot, there was a swarm of Cougars ready to jump in and grab the defensive rebound: WSU cleaned up 79% of Seattle’s misses, allowing just eight offensive rebounds. Only one of those offensive boards came in the first half, and most of them came in the last 10 minutes when the contest was already well out of reach.
It’s unlikely they keep up those kinds of results, but as we said in our preview: Defense is going to be the calling card of this team. And that was on full display tonight.
The offense is ... a work in progress. Smith’s previous teams have never been particularly fast in terms of tempo — only once have they ranked in the top 100 in average offensive possession length — but the Cougs seemed to have a plan tonight to attack with early offense. It wasn’t “fast,” per se, but the Cougs also weren’t turning down the first good shot that presented itself.
It turned out to be brilliant, as WSU made a bunch of shots early, and blitzed the Redhawks before they knew what hit them.
I fully expected the Cougs to struggle a bit on offense at this point in the season; the emphasis has (rightly) been on developing the defense, and I assume things have been kept pretty simple on offense. That will change as the season goes along, but for tonight, not letting an opponent that was pretty damn good on defense last year settle in and hunker down was a great idea, because things looked just a little rough when the team was forced to execute in the halfcourt.
The other thing that was a great idea? HOLDING ONTO THE BASKETBALL. After watching all the careless mistakes made by Ernie Kent’s teams over the past five years, it was gratifying to see a team make smart passes and value possession. The 4.2% turnover rate was the best in the 20 years or so of kenpom.com data, and it’s the lowest in the country so far this season. They also picked up a bunch of offensive rebounds, grabbing their own miss on about a third of the possessions.
The funny thing is that, overall, they didn’t shoot that well; their eFG% of 47 is pretty middling. However, they posted a superior 1.20 points per possession. It just goes to show you how far it can take you when you avoid empty possessions and give yourself extra looks at the basket — something Kent’s teams did far too rarely.
We might have a good one in Noah Williams. The freshman from O’Dea High School in Seattle played just 13 minutes, but he had an outsized impact on the game. He was the first guard off the bench, and he was all over the place. Now, sometimes that wasn’t a good thing; he was caught out of position a few times in his eagerness to make a play. But he flashed enough potential — particularly on the defensive end, where his length proved challenging for some Redhawks — to get us very excited.
I might have been over the top when I said to my friends, “He has the potential to be the best defender we’ve had since Kyle Weaver,” but I will make no apologies for my excitement tonight. This is a time for unabashed celebration.
BONUS: The floor looks great. The anthracite, however, does some weird things on the TV with colors. We should really consider wearing crimson at home.