If you’re reading this, you know what was expected out of the Washington State men’s basketball team this season. Hopes were sky high for a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.
After just three games — THREE! — that aspiration might already be on life support.
Here are a trio of thoughts on Tuesday’s inexplicable 70-59 loss to Prairie View A&M.
Horrendous, horrendous L: There’s almost no way to oversell just how bad of a loss this is for a team that had set its sights on being in the bubble conversation for the NCAA tournament. PVAMU was ranked in the kenpom 300s coming into the game (thanks to this win, the Panthers are now at 278). It’s the second-worst loss for WSU, by ranking, since kenpom started tracking these things in 2001-02.*
For NCAA tournament purposes, this is going to be a Quad 4 loss, and a non-competitive one at that. If you’re into numbers, barttorvik.com’s “TourneyCast” dropped their chances of making the tournament from about 20% to 2% — and that 2% is almost entirely just the Cougars’ odds of winning the Pac-12’s auto bid. Subtract that, and the odds of an at-large bid are currently about 0.1%. Yiiiiiiikes.
If the Cougars are able to do enough to get back into the bubble picture (more on that in a sec), it’s a virtual certainty that this would be the “worst” loss any bubble team would have. It doesn’t matter that it’s only the third game of the season, it doesn’t matter that the game was on the road (this was part of a scheduling agreement between the Pac-12 and the SWAC), it doesn’t matter that the Panthers had a roughly 1-in-10 chance of winning the game (via kenpom) and this was the one, thanks to some unusually hot shooting — the stink of this loss will be very, very real for the remainder of the season unless it turns out that PVAMU is actually good.
The reason we can be so confident that this will be the worst loss of anyone on the bubble is that bubble quality teams just don’t lose games to teams like this, and beyond that, they definitely don’t lose them in this fashion — which calls into question everything we thought when we were projecting this team heading into the season. Yes, three games is a small sample, but it’s also, like, 10% of the season, because college basketball seasons are so short. And right now, this team is bad and nowhere near bubble quality.
If — and this is a massive IF at this point — the Cougs actually are as good as we thought two weeks ago, this loss technically can be overcome. Committees usually put more weight on good wins than they do bad losses, and the Cougs have a number of chances to impress: Road wins against Oregon and Baylor in the next month would counterbalance that pretty quickly. They’ll also have four games against UCLA and Arizona.
But the margin for error is gone with regards to the other “cupcakes” (lol) on the nonconference schedule. WSU very likely now can’t afford even one other slip up against the likes of Eastern Washington, Detroit Mercy, etc. Everything going forward has to convince the committee that the PVAMU loss was just a one-off on a bad night driven by injuries.
The injury factor is real: Nobody likes excuses, but I think there’s a difference between excuses and reasons, and while injuries might not be the reason they lost to PVAMU, they certainly are a reason — maybe the reason — why the team has not yet been as good as we hoped. WSU played last night without DJ Rodman (sickness), which normally would not be a critical loss, except it’s already stacked on top of the losses of Dishon Jackson and Myles Rice (both out for the season) and the injury to Andrej Jakimovski, who remains out with a case of turf toe. That led to the Cougars starting freshman Kymany Houinsou at the 4, and while Houinsou has flashed some tantalizing potential, he’s (A) been wildly inconsistent, and (B) is certainly not a 4. It went about as well as you’d expect, with him scoring 10 points but picking up just one defensive rebound in 23 minutes.
As for Jackson and Rice, we’ll have to stop talking about those two as context for results at some point, but I don’t think we’re there yet — particularly because it’s painfully obvious how massive their absences are. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Jackson alone could have been the difference against both Boise State and PVAMU, and it’s now clear that Rice was slated for a pretty significant role in the backcourt.
I was way, way too quick to gloss over the losses of Jackson and Rice when thinking about this season. It wasn’t just that I overstated the degree to which other players would improve (looking your way, Mouhamed Gueye), it was that I conveniently discounted what those two guys would be contributing. That was a pretty big whiff on my part! Like it or not, you have to acknowledge that Smith recruited those guys, developed those guys, and was counting on those guys.
Until we reach a point where we have fully recalibrated expectations for this season, their absence is going to be a part of the narrative. There aren’t a whole lot of teams who could lose four of their top eight or nine players and just keep right on trucking.
But this is clearly deeper than injuries: Should WSU have beaten PVAMU even without Rodman, Jakimovski, Jackson, and Rice? Probably! The fact that they didn’t — and didn’t even come close — speaks to something deeper. Kyle Smith took umbrage with his team’s desire after the game.
“(PVAMU) played really hard and really out-competed us — I can’t put any other way,” he said. “Sometimes you tip your hat to them, but I thought we should have a little more fight in us. We got humbled tonight.”
Tough words from a coach who prides himself on coaching tough teams. He went on to specifically say freshman Dylan Darling “competed” and then to say the other freshmen (Houinsou, Adrame Diongue, and Carlos Rosario) also “competed.” He did not note anyone else who competed. Make of that what you will.
“Maybe (we need to) look at how we’re starting, who we’re starting, a little bit,” Smith said.
For example ...
Justin Powell and Jabe Mullins are two of the team’s three starting guards. Powell has played 90% of the team’s minutes; Mullins 81%. And yet, each of them are using only 15% of the team’s possessions when they’re on the floor — something kenpom.com categorizes as someone with a “limited role,” the lowest category possible for rotational players. You might have one starter playing heavy minutes who fits that description because they’re a defensive stopper or a true pass-first point guard, but to have two is kind of mind blowing — and actually is extremely detrimental to the offense when you’ve got two guys on the floor who are non-threats.
Powell was brought in to be an impact player, and we gushed about his first game, in which he racked up 12 assists. To see him drift into the background as he has the past two games is pretty concerning. Mullins, meanwhile, was a highly regarded high school recruit who turned into a low usage backup at Saint Mary’s before transferring. Playing the same way he did down in Moraga but with way more minutes up here is not a winning solution.
Which brings us to Mouhamed Gueye, who has, frankly, just been bad in the last two games — so bad that he basically was benched down the stretch against the Panthers. He’s played 55 minutes in the last two games, and the team is minus-26 when he’s been on the floor. Plus-minus is a notoriously “noisy” stat, but when you’re talking about a guy who is playing heavy minutes and was supposed to develop into a go-to guy, it’s telling that the team is playing so poorly when he’s on the floor.
I think these guys can play much better, but there also remains the possibility that we overestimated their development and/or abilities. I guess we’ll see.
*The worst loss was by Ken Bone to Utah in 2012 — the Utes were ranked 336 at the time and finished the year 302. Unsurprisingly, Ernie Kent also lost to a team that was in the 300s at the time: Montana State was ranked 314 in 2018. Ernie also had a handful of other losses to teams in the high 200s.