The Washington State Cougars were one of the best overall defensive teams in the nation last year by just about any measure. They are a team with a lot of size, a lot of athleticism, and a coach that emphasizes defense ... and they were this good despite being a team made up mostly of underclassmen. The year of development they’ve all had — as well as the continued growth in chemistry — should push their defense to even another level this season.
WSU tests really well in a lot of the most important defensive areas. The standout is when guarding the pick-and-roll, where the team ranked in the 94th percentile. This is a major cause for optimism, but there is some worry that number might drop.
The biggest potential cause for a drop-off would be the loss of Isaac Bonton. Bonton was a really good point-of-attack defender when he was locked in, and he was great at funneling small guards into shot blockers. Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers are not known for their defense or athleticism, and it could hurt the elite defensive rating in pick and roll scenarios.
Ryan Rapp could spell the starting guards from their defensive woes when needed, as he was one of the best defensive point guards in the country last season. That’s not an exaggeration: Rapp was in the 93rd percentile when guarding spot-ups (catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive scenarios) and then 84th percentile when guarding the pick and rolls. His size and strength allow him to push guards off their spots, and he utilizes the bigs well.
Jefferson Koulibaly is a player who could find his way into the rotation this season and his defense could be a big part of that. He is the most athletic guard on the team, and he had moments of excellence when playing in high school. He still has to adjust to college guards, but there is upside for the redshirt freshman on that end.
Fellow freshman Myles Rice is less known for his defensive ability. He has solid lateral athleticism, but he is very much an offensive-minded point guard, and that could bury him a bit in the rotation because he doesn’t offer the change of pace that Rapp and Koulibaly do.
The cause for optimism that the number will stay elite is that the Cougs still have two great shot-blocking bigs in Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson. Abogidi is known for his emphatic blocks, but Jackson is no slouch as a technical rim protector, finding himself in the 59th percentile guarding the roll and even better when guarding spot-up drives (90th percentile).
The big tandem will be joined by Mouhamed Gueye, another elite athlete who could excel around the rim. He is more of a backline help guy rather than a straight rim protector, but getting by Abogidi only to have to finish over Gueye at the rim sounds like a nightmare for most guards.
Tony Miller could also factor a bit early in the season. His experience and athleticism make him someone that Kyle Smith can trust to be sound out there defensively and help when the young roster is struggling to get a stop.
The anchoring in the frontcourt is always important, but the wing defense is something that could take a major step up this season. DJ Rodman was in the 79th percentile in overall defense last season, but there is room for improvement here. His defensive percentages have taken a jump year over year and he could take another leap this season. There is potential for Rodman to be one of the statistically best wing defenders in the country.
Andrej Jakimovski was a hit-and-miss defender last year. He was a solid isolation and pick-and-roll defender, but he was a bit aloof off the ball. He was in the 26th percentile on spot-up situations, meaning his closeouts were off-balanced and he struggled to change directions. There are paths to fixing this, but it might still be an up-and-down defensive year for Jakimovski.
TJ Bamba also had a rocky defensive season last year. He is 6-foot-5 and an elite athlete, which adds a certain floor to his ability on that end, but he lacks in a lot of the technical aspects of defense. He ranked in the 37th percentile when guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handler, mostly due to his poor footwork when maneuvering around screens. He will have to really step up as an on-ball defender to earn minutes for the Cougs this year.
Carlos Rosario is an interesting cog in the defensive machine. Smith is known for valuing defensive playmaking, steals, blocks, and everything of the sort. Rosario excels in that. He is 6-foot-7, long, and he graded out well in limited minutes last season. He is not likely to be a major factor in the rotation, but he could add a defensive punch when he does play.
Noah Williams might be one of the major swing pieces defensively this year. He was an awesome defender his freshman season, but he took a solid step back last year as his offensive usage grew. He still forced some turnovers (3.8% steal-plus-block percentage), but his closeouts had noticeably less energy. He only ranked in the 37th percentile when guarding spot-ups.
However, Williams still looked very solid when guarding the primary option on the other team. He graded out in the 68th percentile guarding pick-and-rolls and 65th percentile guarding isolations and those are solid numbers when considering the talent he was guarding. He has to find his consistency this season and the overall upside of the defense could swing on how locked in he is on that end.
The Cougs’ rotation has some questions, as I touched on in the offensive preview, and it is a safe bet to say Smith will lean on the defensive standouts to win rotation roles. Smith is a defensive-minded coach who likes it when players create havoc on that end and the rotation could reflect that this season.
There are some spots that are pretty set in stone in the rotation this year. The bigs are going to play as many minutes as they can. Abogidi and Jackson both can protect the rim and they work together or separately. Those two provide a steady defensive baseline for Smith to build out a rotation.
Gueye is likely to fill the minutes when one of those guys sits, unless his decision-making is absurdly raw. Gueye likely will play almost all of his minutes at the four this season, next to one of Abogidi or Jackson, and he should play that role well with his secondary rim protection and mobility.
Williams is the other set rotation piece, regardless of how he looks defensively. Williams could take that major step up defensively, or he could continue to plateau depending on how his offensive usage looks. If his load on offense is even larger than last year, I expect Williams to play a mostly off-ball role on defense and playmaker a little less on that end.
The guard rotation makes a lot of sense offensively, but defensive woes could throw a wrench in things. The presumed starter and 6th man are Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers, but neither of those players are particularly effective defensive players. This could open up minutes for Rapp and Koulibaly.
Flowers and Roberts are both somewhat undersized at the point and they haven’t been defensive standouts in previous spots. Rapp and Koulibaly could make their bones on the defensive end if they prove to be steady enough offensively to make their defense worth it. It is unlikely Rapp and Koulibaly play major minutes, but there is a distinct chance.
The starting wing job looks pretty wrapped up by Rodman, and his defense is a major part of that. He is a versatile defender who can board, guard bigger wings and smaller guards, and he makes good decisions on and off the ball. His overall steadiness will make him a staple of the WSU rotation.
The wing rotation behind Rodman is a bit more of a question. Both Bamba and Jakimovski have massive strengths and weaknesses defensively and a lot of how they play could depend on what the team needs. If the Cougs need a big-bodied, steady, on-ball defender, then Jakimovski could be the move. If Smith is feeling ok betting on gambles and wants to increase the athleticism on the floor, then Bamba will likely be the one on the floor. These mismatched skills add to the overall versatility of the WSU rotation.
There aren’t many players without a rotation shot at all on this team and that will come down a lot to how they can perform defensively. Rosario could crack a rotation spot if he improves on his defensive playmaking. Rice could make it if he buys into the defensive end and looks like a true two-way point guard. Even Miller could get some minutes because of his veteran savvy. Overall, the rotation still has a lot of questions that Smith will have to figure out throughout the year.
What It Will Look Like
WSU’s defense is known for its aptitude in wreaking havoc. Whether it be guards jumping passing lanes, aggressive pick and roll schemes, or physical on-ball D, the Cougs like to create events as frequently as possible.
On a team that was more guard and wing heavy, I’d expect a lot of trapping ball screens, but that can be tough to pull off if you want to keep your shot-blocking bigs in positions that best utilize their strengths. Smith traditionally liked to use ball-screen coverages like the one shown below, but he will have to continue to adjust. We could still see some trapping, especially with Gueye, as his mobility allows him to trap and recover better than most on the team.
Luckily, Smith proved last season that he is more than capable of adjusting for the talent on his roster. He ran a hedge and iced-based pick and roll scheme last season and that should continue, allowing the bigs to stagger down low, making guards take tough mid-range shots, and it allows the playmaking to come from wings and guards preventing kickouts.
Part of what makes Smith such a good defensive coach is his ability to maximize his talent. Jackson, Abogidi, Bamba, Jakimovski, Rodman, and the rest of the roster all have very specific strengths they bring defensively and Smith is the perfect mad scientist to maximize all of it. There are some specific matchups where Bamba’s athleticism will be very useful defensively and there are others where the Cougs could really use the point-of-attack defense that Rapp offers. Smith has a lot of tools in his chest this year and it’s easy to trust him to put these guys in the right situation to get the most out of them on the defensive end.
The Cougs should remain close to the top of the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency this year and there is potential for them to be one of the top defensive teams in the country. The combination of defensive talent and coaching is among the best in the history of Palouse hoops.
The cause for concern is still the relative youth of this team, but most of these players have had a year to grow together and Smith’s scheme allows for mistakes so long as plays are being made. It would be great to see Bamba, Jakimovski, and Williams all take a step in the right direction defensively this year.
Abogidi specifically could take a huge jump this year and find himself deep in the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year conversation if all goes his way. His shot-blocking is truly special and it is a major reason this could be his last year in Pullman before finding himself on an NBA roster. His defensive prowess is among the top in the Pac-12 and he’ll help lead the Cougs to their ultimate defensive ceiling.
WSU is going to make their money on defense this season. The offense might determine the overall ceiling for Wazzu, but the defense grants them a healthy floor. They have a deep rotation full of defensive talent, they are uber-athletic, and there is an established track record of defensive excellence. They could potentially be the best defense in the Pac-12 and it could grant them a ticket to the dance come March.