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WSU survives season opener, beats Texas Southern 56-52

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Poor shooting, turnovers nearly doom the Cougars, but they pull it out down the stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, and happy Thanksgiving! I hope you and your loved ones stay safe today as we all continue to ride out 2020 — which is pretty much what the Washington State Cougars did when they shot just 28 percent and turned the ball over 16 times but figured out a way to get past the Texas Southern Tigers in the season opener, 56-52.

An inspired defensive performance in the second half led to a 10-minute-long 19-3 run that turned a five-point deficit into an eight-point lead with about five minutes to play, and while the Tigers were able to tie it up with an 8-0 run of their own, stellar free throw shooting down the stretch from Aljaz Kunc and Isaac Bonton allowed them to survive.

In their first game without CJ Elleby — off to the NBA after being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers — the Cougars showed they’ve got a long way to get the offense up to speed without their erstwhile talisman.

As expected, the scoring burden fell to senior guard Isaac Bonton, and as was often the case during those situations last year, the results were ... hit-and-miss. In the first half, Bonton shot just 1-of-9 on 3s and 0-of-4 on 2s as the Cougars trailed by three at the break in an ugly affair that featured bad shooting and lots of turnovers by both teams.

But in the second half, Bonton was 2-of-5 on 3s and 4-of-7 on 2s and — probably most importantly — 7-of-9 on free throws for a 21-point outburst on 12 shots.

In the end, Bonton took fully half of the Cougars’ shots from the field, and only four players scored: Bonton (28 points), Kunc (11), Efe Abogidi (9), and DJ Rodman (8). Noah Williams missed all five of his shots (as well as three at the free throw line), as did Ryan Rapp, while Andrej Jakimovski missed two and TJ Bamba and Tony Miller each missed one.

It was ugly, ugly, ugly, and if you missed it, you didn’t miss much. Here are the things we’re taking away from it, keeping in mind that it’s just one game in (what we desperately hope is) a long season.

The Bonton Quandary

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Elleby and Bonton were given free reign to shoot pretty much whenever they wanted to, and while Bonton’s role in that was often frustrating to fans who could plainly see his low efficiency, it also was obvious that the Cougars didn’t have much alternative — that much was clear in the game that Bonton missed.

With Elleby gone, we knew that picking up some of that slack would fall this season to Bonton, and we also knew that Bonton would gladly accept the challenge. What we didn’t know was that Bonton literally would try to pick up all the slack, by himself: Last night, Bonton took 53% of the team’s shots (free throws included) after he and Elleby combined last season for about 61%.

That’s completely unsustainable, and that’s not just about Bonton’s results — nobody can carry that kind of rate for an entire season, particularly since he played 38 minutes. Last season’s leader in shot percentage was Marquette all-American Markus Howard at 40% playing 32 minutes a game.

The hard part of this is that Bonton is being miscast as a point guard out of necessity, and when the ball is in his hands, he’s going to try to make something happen. Because he’s always thinking about scoring first, he just doesn’t have a great feel for getting himself to spots to make plays for others, often penetrating so deep that he really only has the option of putting up a contested shot — if he doesn’t get stripped by the plethora of hands surrounding him. His 3 assists vs. 7 turnovers last night was a pretty accurate reflection of his limitations as a playmaker.

There was some hope that a newcomer could come in and win that PG job, but Jefferson Koulibaly suffered what appears to be a season-ending injury and juco transfer Myles Fitzgerald-Warren also was unavailable because of injury. There really isn’t another guy on the roster with primary ball handler skills, so it’s Bonton, again.

I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but truthfully, it doesn’t actually matter whether it’s one guy missing a bunch of shots, or those missed shots being spread out among a bunch of players, and while we don’t have a lot of evidence that other guys deserve a bunch more shots, Bonton at least has ability to create some space and get hot. We saw that in the second half. I trust that the coaching staff knows what they’re doing in giving Bonton all the leash that he gets.

Last night was extreme, but we’re probably going to have nights like this because Williams, Rapp, Rodman, etc. look like they haven’t added much to their game in terms of offense skill. That was a little disappointing to see last night, and hopefully just a bad result in the first game. Because somehow, some way, at least some of Bonton’s shots need to find their way to other guys.

It’s going to be all about defense this year

In case all of the preceding didn’t make it clear, let’s just state the obvious: This team is going to have to hang its hat on defense. Don’t allow a putrid offensive performance to cause you to lose sight of the fact that the Cougs allowed just 0.71 points per possession — that’s the lowest of the Kyle Smith era.

It was pretty much the same recipe we’ve gotten used to:

  • Chase shooters off the 3-point line (only 19 attempts for Texas Southern, which doesn’t take many 3s to begin with, but still) and contest everything;
  • Lock down the defensive glass (the Tigers rebounded only 23% of their misses)
  • Force turnovers (17 for the Tigers, 23% of their possessions)
  • Don’t put the other team on the line (only 13 FT attempts against 61 FGA, 21% free throw rate)

Additionally, for all the struggles Williams had offensively, he drew multiple charges and was a force on that end, again. The defense was a little out of sync in the first half, looking tentative at times, but it was pretty dominant during that run that allowed them to win the game.

Abogidi looks like a potential star

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The freshman picked up the start in the middle and it was clear from the very beginning why that was: He moves unlike any big man we’ve had in Pullman for quite some time. I’m honestly struggling to come up with a name for comparison — Dan Dickau reached for Valentine Izundu on the broadcast last night, but that was immediately and obviously silly: Abogidi hit a pair of deep jumpers with a shot that looked pretty ok!

When coach Kyle Smith went for a comparison after the game, he went for a name that is a little more eye-popping than Izundu: “He’s a unique player and I guess the guy that comes to mind, he’s kind of like Serge Ibaka, who’s a shot-blocker, rebounder and can make a 3. Makes corner 3’s. Efe, if he works at it, he’ll be a good foul shooter. If he does that, it makes him a really unique player. Now his ball-handling needs to improve. He’s got to not take as many chances and that’ll be the next thing, to become the player he wants to be, that’ll be more of a spring, summer development to get his ball-handling and stuff like that.”

I don’t think WSU has ever had a “Serge Ibaka.”

Abogidi only played 19 minutes, but he did plenty of damage in that amount of time: 9 points (including a made 3), 8 rebounds (three offensive), 1 (monster) block. His best offensive play was a not-so-simple tap-in — after a lob pass to him was deflected up and a bit away from him, he adjusted himself in mid-air to redirect it into the goal. His rebounding rates in this one (caveat: small sample size) suggest someone who could be dominant on the glass.

He possesses a grace and athleticism that we almost never see out of bigs at WSU. A couple of knee injuries during what should have been prime recruiting time for the Nigerian by way of Australia caused him to fly under the radar and eventually land with us. And if he can stay healthy — I suspect he didn’t play more last night because of those concerns — he will be an absolute monster.

The other freshmen ... meh

Interest in the basketball team for this season among our fans is way up compared to recent years, owing to last season’s unexpected win total and the unprecedented recruiting success of Kyle Smith and his staff. Those fans who tuned in because of that likely walked away uninspired.

Outside of Abogidi, it was pretty much a dud. Andrej Jakimovski and TJ Bamba were the only two other freshmen to play, and they combined for just 9 minutes and 3 shots, although Jakimovski picked up a few rebounds. We really didn’t get much of a chance to see what either of them could do.

Meanwhile, in addition to Koulibaly, both Dishon Jackson and Carlos Rosario sat out in street clothes with unspecified injuries. Their presence suggests that neither absence was COVID related.

Some positive physical developments, though!

It’s actually a bit of an underserved shame that I’ve waited this long to really talk about Kunc. He had a really nice game, pulling down some contested rebounds and hitting a bunch of big free throws down the stretch. He’s listed as nearly 15 pounds heavier than last season, and the muscle definitely shows on the junior. He already was a smart defender; if the added muscle allows him to compete a little bit better physically and if his 3-point shot is a little bit improved, he could be a real nice piece this year.

Other guys who showed clear physical improvement included sophomores Rapp and Vova Markovetskyy. The former got some extended run but couldn’t find the range; the latter only played 13 minutes in a game that wasn’t really suited to his skill set.

Up Next: Eastern Washington (?)

The Cougs are next scheduled to take the floor against EWU on Saturday, but that’s a bit of a question mark right now. The Eagles had to cancel their season opener yesterday because of two positive COVID tests — both starters.

According to EWU, “Eastern’s game at Washington State on Saturday is expected to be played provided several players currently under quarantine are tested and cleared to play.” I suppose the fact that it hasn’t yet been canceled suggests that nothing further has gone awry.

If the game goes off as planned, it will be at 8 p.m. PT and broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.