WSU suffered a tough, 76-71 loss against in-state rivals Eastern Washington on Saturday. While it would be nice to chalk this up to some early season jitters and the lack of two of our best wings, there were some real points of worry with how we played against the Eagles.
The game was a real heartbreaker to watch in person. We started off a bit sluggish, but ended the first half on a run that gave us a double digit lead by halftime. However, it was quickly erased by Eastern’s shooting and WSU’s lack of aggression on both ends. As soon as we started playing from behind, there was a sense of dread that the game was out of our hands. We never felt in control, and it ended with a whimper.
Let’s try to parse through what it is anomaly and what is palpable worry. There are some things that can be chalked up to a poor shooting night, the lack of Noah Williams and TJ Bamba, and some foul trouble. However, there is a lot that can lead to bigger takeaways and some adjustments that have to be made as the Cougs gear up for Pac-12 play.
What Shouldn’t Be a Worry Going Forward?
Even in a bad game, there are always some positives, or at the very least, things that are not that big of a worry. The first major positive for the Cougs was Dishon Jackson starting to find a rhythm. He did not have a game that popped statistically (9 points on 2/3 shooting), but he had some moments where he looked like the Jackson of last year in the post. This one stands out specifically. He establishes himself in the post, passes out of the double, buries his man deeper, get the ball back, and gets a bucket.
Michael Flowers had an inefficient night, and there are issues with him as a primary playmaker going forward, but he looks the part of a competent starting guard for this team. The shot-making is really impressive and he competes defensively and on the glass. His shooting makes him valuable off-ball and he is a very good late shot-clock shot maker when the offense bogs down.
Finally, there is a reasonable assumption to be had that our shooting from outside was an outlier bad. The Cougs missed a lot of good shots and quite a few of those shots were unlucky rim-out. There is a bit of worry that the Cougs are generally not a great shooting team, but a few guys missed shots that they are going to hit at a solid rate throughout the season.
OK, now ... the less-good stuff. These are things that haven’t always been problems through the first six games — the offense has been very good, very efficient overall — but they popped up against EWU and could present some issues going forward against higher quality teams.
The Importance of Rim Pressure
Rim pressure is a core piece of building a successful, modern offense. Generating rim pressure leads to easy looks at the basket and it makes defenses rotate. Trying to play outside-inside-outside with pick-and-rolls and driving guards leading to open shooters is the core function of many modern offenses. The Cougs really struggle to generate reliable rim pressure and it became a death sentence against EWU.
Our guards are struggling to get downhill reliably, and that tends to shrink the court and let defensive players stay home on the off-ball players. Our guards tend to run pick-and-rolls for the purpose of getting into the mid-range or as a dummy action for what is being set up off-ball. Williams is the only player on the team who can reliably run a pick-and-roll with the purpose of getting downhill and scoring.
Even on plays that look good, it is clear to see that just taking a few extra dribbles into the paint would open up so much more. Here, Michael Flowers settles for a solid, but inefficient shot — driving all the way into the paint could have opened up a dump-off to the roller or a kickout to a shooter.
We can occasionally get these hard drives from our guards, but the lack of size limits the finishing ability and makes our advantages smaller. Here, Roberts drives hard and gets what most would consider to be a solid shot, but his size causes him to draw almost no help, he’s too small to finish, and the kickout is into a contested jumper.
This is a major structural issue with our roster. We need Roberts and Flowers out there for major minutes because they are our only super reliable shooters and ball-handlers, but their offensive deficiencies make building a conventional offense around them virtually impossible. It worked for the first few games, when our bigs were scoring in the post and Williams was there to draw major defensive attention, but they struggle as the main focal points of the offense against good defenses.
Curse of Mediocre Shooters
Spacing is one of the core tenets of the modern game and Kyle Smith’s offensive style. WSU is a team that, in theory, should have excellent spacing. The Cougs are a team that has multiple 5-out or 4-out lineups on paper, but they don’t have the number of truly deadly shooters to make that work in execution.
The mediocre shooting up and down the roster comes down to a couple of different factors. For one, the volume of shots has gone down. DJ Rodman has gone from shooting 2.9 3s per game to 1.5, Andrej Jakimovski from 4.1 to 2.3, and Noah Williams has went from 4.6 to 1.8. Most worryingly, Efe Abogidi and Mouhamed Gueye have only attempted three and four threes respectively. There have been some other players with higher volume threes, specifically TJ Bamba taking three per game, but our role players taking fewer threes makes them easier to guard.
The general shot-making from deep has been just as worrying as the lack of volume. Gueye and Abogidi are yet to hit a shot from deep, Williams has had a slow start from beyond the arc, and Rodman and Koulibaly have shot poor percentages. The Cougs rely heavily on Roberts and Flowers to be their primary floor spacers, but they also rely on them heavily for on-ball playmaking and it just becomes a difficult ecosystem for high-level offense to thrive.
The effect this has on the court is pretty obvious at times. Teams can sell out to double in the post or stop drivers and we don’t punish them by hitting looks from deep. A lot of this could be solved by just letting players cast away, even if they’re not always hitting. Abogidi only shot 27.3% from three last season, but he would occasionally get closeouts because he was willing to take them.
This play is a perfect example of why Gueye needs to shoot. This is a really well run top pick-and-roll and a pocket pass is opened up by the big stepping out. However, as Gueye clears to the corner, his man sits in the paint and gets the easy steal. If Gueye has established himself as a shooter, Flowers could look off the defender and keep the pass to the roll man open.
This is another one where Gueye’s lack of perimeter gravity leaves us without an advantage. Abogidi sets a good screen here and Flowers gets a couple steps downhill, but his drive is cut off by Gueye’s defender and Flowers can’t just kick out to Gueye for a shot because he is not known to shoot that. Even if he misses, the offense looks better when Gueye takes that shot.
This section is not meant to pick on Gueye inherently, but he had the most representative sample of the shooting issue against Eastern. Once again, the defenders are tight to no one and instead of taking the shot, he drives into Abogidi and forces him to take a bad step-back on the kickout.
This shooting hesitancy is all over the roster. Rodman has a been a bit hesitant to let it fly and he looks like he is second guessing himself when he has open spot-ups. Williams finally started to let some jumpers fly against Winthrop and it did wonders for our offense. Jakimovski is shooting 50% from deep in the early season and he should continue to increase his volume from out there. When Bamba and Williams are healthy, the spacing issues should be slightly alleviated, but the lack of volume on spot-up threes could be a concern going forward.
One of the early worries with this team in general was the overall lack of processing speed on this roster. This is partially to do with the youth on the team and partially to do with the archetypes that fill out the roster, but the game processing from the team as a whole leaves a lot to be desired thus far.
It is not necessarily that the team is full of bad decision-makers, as our turnover rate is down from last year and a lot of that is due to the steady presence of the guards, but there are quite a few plays where the Cougs just look a half second behind the plot. This is not an obstacle that is impossible to overcome, but it makes precise execution a necessity.
Here is a small example of slower processing making plays more difficult. There is a pocket or over the top pass available to Gueye here, but Flowers hesitates and settles for the kickout with no advantage created.
Here is one that is a collective mistake. Gueye gets a touch down in the post, but is immediately confronted with a dig. This is partially possible because Roberts is not at the right spot to receive a pass off the double and partially a result of Gueye’s pre-determined decision to jab and attack. This is a look that should result in a good shot, but it ends in a turnover because of a couple misreads.
Koulibaly had a rough game against EWU, the shot wasn’t falling and he had some tough turnovers, but he is one of the guards on the roster capable of creating real rim pressure as a driver. Here, he gets all the way into the lane, but Rodman cuts out of the corner and leaves him stranded to making a bad pass. Cutting to nowhere accomplished virtually nothing when remaining in the corner could have forced a rotation in the defense.
Sometimes the poor processing can pair with over ambition and lead to plays like this. There is a lot of good to what Koulibaly does here; he gets downhill and wants to hit a dump off to his big. However, the decision to jump completely took control out of Koulibaly’s hands. Had he taken a control dribble out into the lane, Jackson could have established firm position, he could have put EWU’s big in jail, or he could have seen Mason Landdeck sprinting to backside dig on Jackson and kicked it to an open Flowers on the wing.
The processing is not an unconquerable issue for this team. Long-term, someone like Myles Rice could really step into an all-around role with his athleticism and decision-making, but this can even be pretty fairly compensated for this season.
One major way to mitigate issues with offensive processing to play more in the full-court than the half-court. Even in the game against EWU, the Cougs best run came when they played at a fast pace and were forcing turnovers. Another thing WSU could do is keep the ball moving. This worked wonders in the UCSB game, where the Cougs were constantly moving off-the-ball and generating good looks. The issues mainly come when the game bogs down into a pick-and-roll heavy system where we don’t have the manipulators necessary to take full advantage of that play style.
The final, and arguably most prominent, issue against Eastern was the Cougs’ abysmal defense. Everything about the Cougs defense has just looked off for the last three halves of basketball and that seems almost absurd to say considering how much of a miracle worker Smith tends to be on defense. Combine that with the defensive talent on this team and it should remain near the top of the country. That was absolutely not the case against Eastern.
The first thing to point to with the disappointing defense is to look at our best defensive player. Abogidi has really struggled to establish a presence down low in the past few games. He hasn’t registered a block in the past two games and he looks like he still might be nursing an injury. The injury stuff is most evident on offense, where he is not trying to blow by defenders and instead settling for a lot of jumpers.
Missing Abogidi’s presence is huge for the defense and it is a major limiter on the Cougs’ defensive ceiling. Abogidi has a shot to be the best defensive player in the Pac-12, but he needs to be healthy and the guards needs to sell out to send drivers into him. He still has his moments, even when injured, where it is apparent just how devastating he can be defensively.
The main issue with defense, however, is not the lack of Abogidi’s presence at the rim, it is instead the amount of good looks we are giving up from three.
The Cougs are not really putting a lot of pressure on shooter to run them off their spots. When they do, it looks much better, and WSU gets to take advantage of their size on the interior when guards are forced to finish amongst the trees.
The size of the Cougs’ guards really hurts our defensive ability. Mason Landdeck is not really a Pac-12 caliber guard, but he was able to overpower and get by Roberts and that will only get worse come conference play.
The Cougs could really improve their overall defense would be buying more into the old system that Kyle Smith ran his first season as head coach. Forcing more turnovers and playing aggressively on the perimeter would go along way. Even if the possessions did not result in turnovers, they would force shooters off the line and give our big shot-blockers more of a chance to utilize their strengths.
At the End of the Day ...
The Cougs were humbled by this game. It should stand as an important reminder to WSU that they cannot get cocky before they have earned it. Nothing is handed to you in the Palouse, and a tournament berth for basketball is no different, despite what some experts might have predicted.
There is a positive to a loss like this; it should become a reminder that we never want this feeling again. This team really defines being a Coug in a lot of ways, as it is full of players who play with a chip on their shoulders. Williams and Abogidi were underranked and underrecruited by top programs, Flowers and Roberts come from small schools and they were overlooked due to their size, and Coach Smith himself has a mean streak. We got a little too high, a little too mighty, and the basketball gods reminded us that we need to earn it first.
Hopefully, this loss puts the chip back on the Cougs’ shoulder, just in time for Pac-12 play.