The Washington State Cougars, defending winners of the final college basketball game of the 2019-20 season and therefore defending champions, begin their not necessarily a title defense but not necessarily not a title defense on Wednesday night (8 pm PT, Pac-12 Network) when they host the Texas Southern Tigers. The Cougs will be without head coach Kyle Smith for the season opener, as he isolates and recovers from COVID-19.
Following one of the best recruiting classes in program history, WSU will certainly be featuring some new faces on the court, along with some key returnees. The readiness and development of those freshman will be key in determining just how well the Cougs do in Smith’s second year at the helm.
The Tigers come from the SWAC, one the worst conferences overall in major college basketball. However, Texas Southern, under former LSU head coach Johnny Jones, is a step above most of their counterparts and should contend for the league title.
Let’s look at the key players and trends for the Cougs vs. Tigers.
When Texas Southern has the ball...
Texas Southern returns three senior starters in Justin Hopkins, Yahuza Rasas, and John Jones. All three were offensive role players a season ago, but they each bring specific positive attributes.
Hopkins will man the wing, attacking the basket and looking to get to the free throw line. More than 60 percent of his shots came at the rim in 2018-19, and he hit 78 percent of his free throws. He can knock down outside shots, but he is more selective. On the other end of the spectrum, expect Jones to be one to hoist from deep—63 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the 3-point arc as a junior.
Rasas is a slender, athletic forward who will attack the offensive glass. He tends to hover around the basket, as more than two-thirds of his attempts were at the rim last season.
The departure of senior point guard Tyrik Armstrong leaves a void in ball-handling and playmaking duties for the Tigers. That void is likely to be filled by Michael Weathers, a transfer who was previously dismissed from Oklahoma State. He was a high-volume shooter and assist man for the Cowboys, and previously the MAC Freshman of the Year with Miami (OH).
Weathers hasn’t been particularly efficient in his two seasons of college basketball, but he does create for others and possesses the ability to get to the basket. At Oklahoma State, nearly 73 percent of his shots were at the rim. Have I mentioned he is just a 6’2 guard?
Another player expected to make an important contribution is Bryson Etienne, a heavily-used reserve last year who may step into a starter role this season. About half his shots came from 3-point range, but he shot just 25 percent from deep as a junior. He doesn’t venture inside often, and is most frequently a catch-and-shoot scorer.
To provide some size. Chris Baldwin returns for a second senior season. The 6’9, 220-pound forward is a solid offensive rebounder. He’s not the interior threat you would expect, as he is more likely to shoot a jumper than take it to the basket.
Overall, the Tigers will be at a size disadvantage against WSU’s defense, and look for them to push the tempo whenever possible. Texas Southern will drive the ball at the rim frequently, looking to draw fouls and generate points from the free throw line. Washington State’s defense will need to stop penetration, challenge shots without fouling, and block out crashing rebounders. The ability for the Cougs to score on the offensive end, and prevent the Tigers from starting breaks off defensive rebounds, will also matter.
When WSU has the ball...
It’s likely to be very much the Isaac Bonton show again for the Cougar offense this season, especially with the departure of CJ Elleby. What will be most interesting to watch is if some other player—maybe a returner or one of the highly-regarded freshmen, can step up to take away primary ball-handling duties from Bonton. While he is capable at being the distributor, he looks much more comfortable when he can work off the ball.
The other player that is likely to feature offensively is Tony Miller, but outside of that, there are a lot of questions to be answered offensively for the Cougs.
Stylistically, WSU should be moderately high tempo with a slight proclivity to launch 3-pointers. As a contrast, Texas Southern’s defense seems to have been focused on limiting 3-point attempts. With just one returning Texas Southern shot-blocker in Baldwin, that could serve to benefit the Cougars, who could roll out a lineup with a distinct size advantage if they so choose.
Last season, Texas Southern rebounded well defensively against conference opponents, but struggled mightily in the non-conference to clean the glass. Overall, WSU will more often than not look to get back on defense vs. chasing offensive rebounds. Still, there were times last season that the Cougs faced opponents with defensive rebounding weaknesses and went to the offensive glass to exploit those weaknesses.
The Tigers create an intriguing tactical choice for WSU. Do they look to work a size advantage by sending more players to grab offensive boards? Or do they focus more on getting back and limiting transition opportunities for Texas Southern? The obvious answer is to just never miss shots, the best of all worlds.
In terms of turnovers, Texas Southern was a bit above average in forcing giveaways last year. In non-conference play, WSU was downright stingy in the turnover department. Limiting turnovers will be huge for the Cougs, as there should be opportunities for open looks.
The Bottom Line
Texas Southern is not a standard SWAC pushover to open the season. The Tigers have some talent, so don’t expect to this to be a runaway win for WSU. KenPom.com predicts an average of 79-70 Washington State win with the Cougs coming out on top in 79 percent of predicted scenarios.
WSU can’t come out flat. Turning the ball over, or missing a high volume of shots, would play right into Texas Southern’s strengths. Allowing penetration and misses block outs assignments could also spell disaster defensively.
The good news is that under Smith, there are some tendencies for WSU that seem to negate what Texas Southern does well—particularly on the defensive end. Still, expect this to be a high-scoring, if not necessarily efficient, up-and-down affair.
But above all, be on the look out for one or both of Texas Southern’s twin guards, Ja’Mere Redus, and Ja’Mare Redus. How will their names be printed on the back of their jerseys? Will they just go with full names? Will it be Ja’Me. Redus and Ja’Ma. Redus? This is the most important question of the day.