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NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Washington State

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The Monday After: A bummer, but ultimately not that big of a deal

Think twice before you read too much into WSU’s stunning loss to South Dakota State.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

At 1:56 p.m. PT on Saturday, Baylor Scheierman’s teardrop 3-pointer fell cleanly through the net at the buzzer to doom Washington State to an unexpected loss to South Dakota State.

By 1:57 p.m., it had already started in earnest and — to be honest — I kinda forgot what it was like.

“It,” is this: After a decade-long hiatus, WSU fans once again are trying their hands at amateur bracketology. My Twitter timeline quickly was flooded with a mixture of panic and dread as Cougs everywhere tried to figure out what a loss to a team from the Summit League would do to the NCAA tournament chances of a school trying to make it back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008.

The consensus was that this loss ranged from bad to VERY VERY VERY BAD to “we’re going to have to win the conference now, aren’t we??”

I’m not going to try and convince you that the loss was good; when it comes to NCAA tournament selection, there’s really no such thing as a good loss. There certainly are bad losses, but I assure you that this particular one is not as bad as you probably think. Every team loses, and most teams suffer losses that raise your eyebrows — especially bubble teams. It’s why, year after year, you hear people proclaim WEAKEST BUBBLE EVER when they look at the candidates for those final few spots in the tournament; they all have flaws.

Which is why I always find the definitive declarations after any particular win or loss — especially at this point in the season — unendingly amusing. There is still so, so much of the season left to play, and so many opportunities to secure victories that are will have more weight with the committee than losses to Eastern Washington and South Dakota State. Beyond that, selection to the tournament is a moving target; the strength of one’s resume is relative to the competition around them.

The reality is that it’s impossible to make your resume at this point in the season, and it’s almost as tough to break it. About the only team in the conference that I feel comfortable saying has no shot at an at-large NCAA tournament berth at this point — because they’ve piled up so many losses — is Oregon State. Everyone else ... I mean, a 14-6 Pac-12 season might not be realistic for Washington or Cal, but it’s theoretically possible. If the Golden Bears beat Dartmouth and Pacific in their next two, and then pile up 14 wins in the conference with victories over two of UCLA, Arizona, and USC ... they’re going to have a heck of a case at 21-10 overall, even with losses to UC San Diego and UNLV.

And you’re stressing out over a team that’s 7-3? In the words of a world-renowned science researcher: R-E-L-A-X. It’s no shock, to me at least, that this team hasn’t completely cruised through the nonconference schedule, that their performances have been uneven. I often try to overlook the fact that they’re still an exceptionally young team, but they are, in fact, still an exceptionally young team: After being 326th nationally in kenpom.com’s “experience” metric (years of experience weighted by minutes played), the Cougars have jumped only to No. 286. There will be flashes of brilliance, and there will be growing pains — both individually and collectively.

At this point in the season, I’m most concerned with process and projections. It’s why I’m not going to freak out about losing a game to a team that probably will win its league and probably end up in the NCAA tournament, particularly when they had to shoot 10-of-16 from 3 to win the game. I said on the podcast last week that these were a tricky pair of games, and sure enough the Cougs got bit. It happens. They also proved they could play with a great team when they were just a bucket or two away from beating USC, and they’ve blown the doors off enough to teams to indicate their ceiling is pretty high.

And yet, there are certainly some things about these Cougs that make me just a little anxious. Yes, there’s an abundance of talent, but Smith hasn’t yet quite figured out how to get it all to mesh together on a nightly basis.

The decision to start Tyrell Roberts for the first eight games was obviously made with offense in mind. It worked, for a while — especially with regards to limiting turnovers — but then Roberts started struggling with his shot, which magnified the limitations of a 5-foot-11 player at this level, and WSU had to try and figure out how to cope with that. Dishon Jackson hadn’t really found his stride before he sat out the last two with an injury (boy we could have used him against the Jackrabbits), Efe Abogidi hasn’t seemed to make any measurable growth in his offensive game, Mouhamed Gueye is still just a puppy, Noah Williams seems to have forgotten how to shoot, etc. etc.

Because of all that, there just doesn’t seem to be a lineup that Smith can go to that can be trusted on both ends of the floor. That’s quite the quandary.

I think that’s a lot of why they seem to lack a bit of identity, something that was never really an issue in Smith’s first two years. I think the coach is genuinely searching a little for the best path forward for this team. It’s one thing to work on building a program, focusing on culture and individual improvement, as he did the first two seasons; it’s quite another to figure out how to maximize your team’s ceiling as you target the NCAAs — a year ahead of schedule, if we’re being honest with ourselves.

I predicted before the season that the Cougs wouldn’t just make the tournament, but that they’d be comfortably in. I stand by that. I have a ton of faith that Smith will get it worked out.

And if they do end up on the bubble? Just know that once you start taking a microscope to the Cougs’ competition for those last few spots, they’re probably going to have at least a couple of head-scratching losses, too.


What We Liked: Taking care of the ball

Smith and his staff made a concerted effort heading into the season to improve WSU’s ball security after the Cougars finished 304th nationally in turnover percentage last season, giving it away on more than 21% of their possessions. I think that was a big part of the impetus behind the three-guard lineup of Roberts, Michael Flowers, and Williams that we saw dominate minutes for the first eight games. And it definitely worked.

But even as Roberts’ minutes have diminished in the past few games, the Cougars have maintained their grip on their turnovers, turning it over on just 15% of possessions against Weber State and just 12% against South Dakota State. That’s a great sign going forward if Smith decides to emphasize defense and limit Roberts’ minutes.

Overall, the Cougs are 71st nationally in turnover percentage at 17%.


Who Impressed: TJ Bamba

PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 4: Washington State Men’s Basketball versus USC Trojans at Beasley Coliseum - TJ Bamba Jack Ellis/CougCenter

If you listen to the podcast, you know I’ve been an unabashed fan of Bamba. His strength and athleticism have intrigued me from the beginning, and we’re starting to see him put those tools together this season.

Bamba has forced his way into the starting lineup the last two games, and he’s rewarded Smith with outings of 19 point and 14 points; against South Dakota State he also added 5 rebounds and 2 blocks without turning the ball over. His offensive rating for the season has jumped to 116 (100 would be roughly average) thanks to shooting 42% from 3 and making 50% of his twos. He’s also pretty decent at getting to the free throw line, where he makes a shade under 70%. This, after posting an offensive rating of just 92 last season.

At this point, remaining in the starting lineup should be a foregone conclusion. About the only question should be how high Bamba’s usage should go. He’s currently using about 20% of the team’s possessions when he’s on the floor, which is just a bit above average; he was at 19% against South Dakota State and 22% against Weber State. I’m thinking there’s enough meat on that bone to push it up at least a few more percentage points to get up around 24% regularly.


What Needs Work: Shooting

In the last five games, WSU has exceeded 45% in effective field goal percentage just once — in that ridiculous outburst against Weber State last Wednesday. Against Eastern and ASU, it was sub-40%. If you lack context for how bad that is, consider: Smith’s first team shot 45.8 eFG% for the entire season, and it was 330th nationally.

When we think “shooting,” we usually think 3-point shooting. And WSU hasn’t exactly lit it up from there in those four poor showings. But distance shooting is notoriously volatile, so I’m not stressing about that. I think WSU has enough competent shooters to keep teams honest on any given night, and there’s no reason to think Williams’ stroke won’t come around.

Instead, I’m trying to figure out how concerned to be about shooting shooting sub-40% on 2s against Eastern, Arizona State, and USC, and then letting South Dakota State bait us into taking more 3s than 2s. Only USC is anything special at protecting the rim, so the inability to make hay around the basket in this recent run of games is pretty danged alarming.

This team simply must figure out a way to get some easier buckets. Maybe that comes from a renewed emphasis on offensive rebounding; what was a definitive strength of the team a year ago has regressed into something merely above average on most nights.

Somehow, some way, an offense that stagnates far too often — the Cougs are 243rd nationally in average possession length on offense — has to find some life inside the arc.


Up Next! New Mexico State and Northern Colorado

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Auburn vs New Mexico State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougs continue their Wednesday/Saturday cadence this week with two more home games: Against New Mexico State and Northern Colorado.

The Aggies represent the latest in this series of tricky games for WSU; the Aggies are 111th in kenpom’s rankings and they’re fairly experienced. They are expert at getting to the rim, and if the refs are calling the game tight ... well, we know how that can go. It’s a game the Cougs should win, but Chris Jans has built a tough program in Las Cruces, and it’s unlikely to be a walkover.

Northern Colorado, meanwhile, is pretty bad. That’s a team the Cougs should handle pretty easily. But on the back end of finals ...

Like I said: Tricky.

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