The Washington State Cougars started the 2021-2022 season in style as they cruised to an 85-67 victory over Alcorn State on Tuesday at Beasley Coliseum.
The flow of the game — part of the Pac-12 Network’s five-game marathon of openers for the conference — was befitting that of a first game of the season that tipped off at noon on a Tuesday: There was plenty of sloppy play, miscommunications, and a parade of free throws as the referees called 48 fouls.
None of that was particularly unexpected, nor was the manner in which the Cougars secured the victory against the Braves, who were projected No. 341 by kenpom.com. WSU trailed just twice in the game, and it was tied at 13 with 10:13 to play in the first half after a little 5-0 run by Alcorn State, but the Cougars used some suffocating defense to finish the period on a 26-12 run to give themselves some breathing room heading into the locker room, 39-25.
They continued that strong play coming out of the break, scoring eight unanswered to stretch the lead to 22 points and pretty much put the game out of reach before the second half was even three minutes old. The Cougars’ advantage never dropped below 13 points the rest of the way.
Newcomer Tyrell Roberts, a transfer from Division II from UC San Diego, led the team with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. Jefferson Koulibaly poured in 13 on 8 shots, while TJ Bamba dropped in 11.
Things to like, things to work on: In a lot of ways, this one was a coach’s dream — a comfortable victory that gives Kyle Smith plenty of teaching fodder over the next couple of days before game two. Each end of the floor was a bit of a mixed bag. The defense was pretty on point for most of the game, but it fell victim to some overzealous officiating in the second half as Alcorn State shot 16 free throws behind 12 WSU personal fouls. (It was the first game for the refs, too.) WSU gave up 0.97 points per possession, much more than what they would have been looking for. On the other end, the Cougs scored a healthy 1.23 points per possession, making 14 of their 22 twos. However, despite the emphasis on dialing back turnovers, the Cougs still gave it away on 20% of their possessions. Despite the 18-point win, there will be no false sense of security for this team as they get ready for game two.
Domination on the glass: One of the important developments of last season was WSU’s transformation into one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the Pac-12, something that covered up a lot of warts on the offensive end. The Cougars continued that on Tuesday, particularly on the offensive end, where they grabbed a whopping 54% of their own misses. The Braves, by contrast, could only get second chances on 29% of their misses.
Although WSU had a big size advantage, the Cougars’ dominance wasn’t just due to its towering front line — Efe Abogidi pulled down seven rebounds (3 offensive, 4 defensive), but frontcourt starters Dishon Jackson and Mouhamed Gueye grabbed just five between them. It turned out to be a total team effort: 6-foot-1 guard Michael Flowers did his best CJ Elleby impersonation with 11 rebounds (10 defensive), while Andrej Jakimovski secured 8 rebounds — including 4 offensive.
Rotation clues: Nine players saw meaningful (double-digit) minutes in this one, and as Kyle Smith is wont to do early in the season, there were lots and lots of lineup combinations . While this surely contributed to the lack of offensive cohesion, it also gave us a little bit of a window into who is ahead of whom at this point in the season. The starting lineup consisted of Roberts/Flowers/Noah Williams/Gueye and Jackson, with Roberts playing a team-high 31 minutes and Flowers coming in second with 27, and Williams played 25. Smith mentioned in the lead up to the game that Williams is still working himself back into shape, so I’m not sure how much to read into that distribution.
Gueye played just 16 minutes and didn’t have a huge impact (6 points, 2 rebounds), but it seems noteworthy that he earned a starting spot when Smith could have easily went with the more experienced Matt DeWolf out of the gate and eased the freshman in. It was easy to see why Gueye was one of the highest rated recruits in program history. Jackson played just 12 minutes, but that had as much to do with the opponent as anything; the Braves were quite small, which you would think would be an advantage for a big man, but Jackson’s post up game thrives on taking advantage of other bigs.
As we suspected, Koulibaly is poised to make an impact, and that appears to have come at the expense of Ryan Rapp’s minutes — the Australian played in just the final minute of the game. Koulibaly ended up leading the team in usage with a number — 32% — that is usually reserved for go-to guys. He was fearless, and he might quickly become a fan favorite.
As a freshman, Bamba played as a shooting guard, which made it hard to see his path to minutes this season with the glut of talented guards on the roster. He solved that problem by bulking up and apparently moving to the wing — two of Roberts/Flowers/Williams/Koulibaly were on the floor when he was. Bamba played 15 minutes while Jakimovski played 19, which left just 8 minutes for DJ Rodman. Rodman appeared to be healthy, so it looks like Bamba is in front — for now.
Did you see that?
#WSU coach Kyle Smith on G Jefferson Koulibaly, who impressed in his debut after missing all of last year with a shoulder injury:— Colton Clark (@SpokesmanClark) November 10, 2021
"He's just relentless. ... He'd be a heckuva football player, like Jamal Adams. Luckily, they don't play football in Montreal." pic.twitter.com/AmhrjL4wg1