The Washington State Cougars entered the season with a lot of promise, but they now sit at 1-2 with a couple of incredibly frustrating losses on their leger. Analyzing what went wrong is a somewhat difficult task because the losses felt so distinct.
It is easy to say they played too soft, they missed shots, or they were weak on the glass. But the problems are more involved than that and the solutions will be equally tough to define. The Cougs will need to make changes soon, as their schedule doesn’t get any easier moving forward. Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy have now become must win games, and challenges at UNLV and Baylor still loom as a future threat.
Kyle Smith and staff can still build a tournament team out of this mess of a start, but it is important to understand the issues and work to fix them fast.
The biggest and most obvious issues with WSU in the early season have been on the offensive end. There are a multitude of issues to discuss, but there is an ever-present feeling of stagnation and lifelessness. Whether it be uncreative sets, consistently questionable decisions, or just missing shots, the offense has felt stale throughout the early portion of the season.
Statistically, WSU’s offense is actually not as terrible as it might look. They rank 107th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (small sample size alert), but their major issues have been with shot efficiency and turnovers. They have an outrageous 20.7% turnover rate to start the season and a hard-to-watch 47.2% effective field goal percentage. The Cougs have been below average as a three-point shooting team and well below average- 250th- in two-point shooting.
As simple as it sounds to say, a major issue with WSU is just that they have missed far too many open looks when they do generate them. TJ Bamba and Justin Powell have shot well to start the season, but Jabe Mullins, DJ Rodman, and the rest of this roster have missed a lot of open looks. Even Powell struggled a bit from deep against Boise State. He and Bamba can both hit shots at a high clip, but they also both pass up open looks too often, and everyone else is struggling to capitalize on the shots the offense creates.
Mullins specifically has been a head-scratchingly bad shooter. His main sell coming in was as a sniper who could move the ball and occasionally attack a closeout on offense, but the sniper part has not translated. After hardly playing for St. Mary’s, he has been thrown into the fire for the Cougs, averaging 32.7 minutes a game. He is only shooting 27.3% from deep on a steady diet of makeable shots.
Shots like these are ones that Mullins has to hit if he is going to stay in the starting lineup. His value comes primarily from stretching the floor, and if he can’t punish defenders for helping off of him, he doesn’t fit with the starting unit.
The rim finishing being as awful as it is despite not playing rim-protecting teams is a major worry going forward. Mouhamed Gueye has not done enough as a driver, Powell and Mullins have barely gotten to the rim, and our depth has struggled to finish even when they do get downhill. Bamba has been the only above-average finisher thus far, and those worries will only be exasperated when playing against Pac-12-caliber rim protection. A lot of these missed layups are mostly uncontested, adding to the worry that finishing will be a consistent struggle going forward.
Far too many of WSU’s offensive possessions look like this, where one or two tiny mistakes just ruin the flow of a possession. The set is great, with a dummy action to clear space for a pick-and-roll followed by an aggressive rise to the top of the key, knowing that a tag will come from the top because of Mullins’ movement. But then everything dies. Bamba needs to take that three, and if he doesn’t, he needs to get all the way to the rim. The decisions are just a step too slow consistently and it leads to no advantage.
WSU’s go-to set this season has been chest. On this play, the big gets the ball at the elbow or the wing, the person who passed the ball then screens away, and the play goes from there. This is a solid set, especially if the goal is to let Gueye make more plays, but the issue is that we often run it in a lazy way. Setting poor off-ball screens, cutting too slowly, and Gueye presenting himself as a non-threat as a driver or shooter. They can create a lot of good looks out of this action, and even this somewhat sloppy play gets an open three for one of our best shooters, but the intensity needs to rise.
This is a set-up that looks good and could be used to enter into plays more consistently going forward. This action starts with a double pindown — or headpat — to get Bamba moving towards the top of the key. The issue is how the action breaks from there. Bamba doesn’t curl the top screen tightly and he fills to the strong side, which could work but Powell gives up the ball immediately instead of running pick-and-roll. Then, a chest set opens up, but because it is to the strong side, nothing comes of it. Again, the idea for this play is solid but the execution is lacking and an advantage is never created.
Something that will be discussed a lot is potentially playing two bigs more consistently. Last season, this was a formula for success and there is reason to believe it could work again this year. However, this set gives us some insight into why the staff might be hesitant. Last year’s go-to set with two bigs was horns, where both bigs start at the elbows and lots of actions can come from that. They tried to do that again with Gueye and Adrame Diongue and it went poorly. It seemed like Diongue didn’t know where he was supposed to go and the whole play broke down far too quickly.
A major problem for WSU’s offense is how east to west it is. Every team is going to run actions that go sideline to sideline rather than to and from the basket, but there are far too many plays made of primarily east-west dribbles. This is partially because of the lack of downhill drivers in the starting lineup and partially due to how reliant the Cougs are on handoff actions to create advantages. This play is constructive in both ways, as Kymany Houinsou spends a long-time dribbling east-west, but both him and Dylan Darling prove they can get north-south when needed. Using the drivers more, even if there will be some growing pains, could be a potential offensive fix moving forward.
Perhaps the biggest worry with this team throughout the preseason process was the lack of a true point guardm, and those worries have bore fruit early. This was an issue to start last season as well, as Smith and staff empowered Noah Williams to be the primary playmaker before realizing that Mike Flowers should be the pick-and-roll ball-handler for the vast majority of possessions. The Cougs will have to come to a similar realization this year, but they will need to do it faster and with a less obvious player to step-up into that role.
After an incredible passing game against Texas State, Powell has looked incredibly timid and unwilling to be the primary playmaker in the subsequent losses. He has a seemingly impressive 26% assist rate to a 9.6% turnover rate, but he only has a 14% usage to start the year. Not ideal for the seeming starting point guard.
It’s hard to say exactly where this hesitancy is coming from for Powell. He was always noted for his confidence on the court, but perhaps adjusting to a new role after playing entirely off-ball last year has been too much for him to do early. He is definitely struggling with turning the corner and getting to the rim out of pick-and-roll, but rather than keeping his dribble in the mid-range area and probing to create something, he tends to kick out quickly, even when nothing is there.
It was known coming in that he was far from an elite ball-handler, but it seems like some of his confidence struggles have come from smaller players getting into his handle and wreaking havoc. This was expected, but he has to power through this frustration and continue growing into a PG role if the offense is going to succeed.
Powell has some moves and he has been at his best this season playing in transition. WSU has played incredibly slow this year and forced few turnovers on defense. Perhaps a switch to the CJ Elleby offensive system would do wonders for Powell and allow him to make plays without having to create advantages from a standstill in the half-court.
A major key for Powell in half-court offense is to trust his size. When guarded by the opposing PG, he doesn’t need to play a finesse game. He can bump them on drives, slowly making progress towards the rim, and then finish over them. He needs to get creative with how he creates advantages because he is rarely going to get blowbys in conference play.
Bamba has been the Cougs’ best player thus far and perhaps their only consistent force on offense, but he has showed early that a PG role is not what he is likely destined for. His jumper has been money and his ability to get downhill and get to the rim is great, but his passing has left a lot to be desired. On a play like this, no one is ever even close to the 43% shooter in the corner, but Bamba never looks his way and instead takes a tough, contested two.
This is another play where something solid happens, but something even better could have come from a pass. Powell is wide open on the pull and even if a closeout might have run him off the line, a simple post-entry to Gueye is almost certain to be open. Bamba gets fouled here and that is a great outcome for this offense, but improved passing from him would go a long way.
This team also struggles with guards who have quick hands. Marcus Shaver abused WSU’s ball-handlers and that is a difficult thing to overcome. Not every team will have a guard who picks up full court and forces steals off a live dribble, but teams that do will have a near guaranteed six points a game off steals alone if things don’t shift.
Role Questions and Chemistry Issues
Beyond just the point guard question, there have been a lot of players asked to play weird roles early in the season due to our lack of depth. Houinsou has played a high percentage of his minutes at the five so far, Carlos Rosario has had to play much more than most expected with an uncertain role, and this team in general lacks a lot of experience playing together — and the growing pains have been obvious.
This play is emblematic of the larger issues at play with this WSU roster, namely that it is over half new faces that don’t have experience playing with one another. This is a new reality in college basketball and it likely won’t change next season, but the team will need to figure out lineups that fit and overcome mistakes like this soon.
Plays like this also just show a lack of real feel for playing with one another. This feels like it should be a quick, connective pass to an open corner shooter. However, Mullins holds it a second too long, perhaps expecting a cut from Powell, and it allows the defense to get in the way. This is the type of stuff you expect to smooth out over the course of the season, but it has hurt them in these early matchups.
WSU has run out some funky lineups early in the season, often in an effort to just get something brewing when down, and some of these groups have struggled to find any rhythm. This is an interesting small-ball unit, but Dylan Darling is a questionable fit in it as a pick-and-roll PG playing without a true big. Rosario and Housinou’s shooting questions led to a cramped floor and it just felt like this unit didn’t have much of a theory to tie it together.
Darling had some excellent moments in the PVAMU game, but if he wants an increased role, he is going to need to be more confident in the jumper. This is the type of look that needs to be a shot in WSU’s offense and the fact that it isn’t is a problem. His role is likely going to be fluid, but he makes a lot of sense with the starting group if he can hit shots like this.
In general, there are too many hesitant shooters on this team. This is an excellent pick-and-roll rep for Powell and he makes the right read to the corner. Houinsou still turns this into a solid drive, but he needs to get to a point where he is comfortable shooting this shot.
Despite it being a completely unnatural role for him, Houinsou has looked solid offensively playing as the five. He is a surprisingly great offensive rebounder who is aggressive rising up for contested boards and boxing out when in position. He is not a horrid screener and there is some clear feel with how he rolls to the rim. He could continue to be an option there despite the inherent weirdness of a 6’5 PG prospect playing at the 5 for a high-major program.
While the role questions are not the primary issue with this offense, it has been an overall struggle for team chemistry and the rotations. Some major surprises like Diongue not playing many real minutes have added to weird rotations. This team has a lot of depth and talent, but it feels like they don’t know how to play together and the staff hasn’t quite found the skeleton key to put them all in the right place.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel, at least potentially. I stand by the statement I made preseason that this is the most talented team in WSU history. Injuries have killed them — as put eloquently by Jeff Nusser in his PVAMU recap — and the offense has struggled to find rhythm, but hope remains for this team to make real noise if they figure some things out.
In part two we will cover the defense, as well as some potential solutions for the problems ailing this team.