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NCAA Basketball: Washington State at California

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What’s Gone Wrong, Part 2: The Defense, the Superstar, and the Youngins

The Cougs look to turn around their season against Eastern Washington, but the first step is understanding why they’ve struggled so far.

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars have started their season off on the wrong foot, but it is more than possible to turn things around.

Part one of this series covered the offense and the struggles they have faced early in the season, and while the offense has been poor, there are just as many worries on this defensive end. From the perimeter D, to some overall poor decision-making, and the lack of rim-protection. There have also been plenty of questions about our presumed superstar down-low and what he might look like going forward.

Understanding these issues, as well as identifying some potential fixes moving forward, should provide some perspective on what the Cougs’ season might look like.

Sloppy Defense

Statistically, WSU’s defense has not been awful to start the season, but it has fallen short of expectations. In a small, three-game sample size (with projections still being factored in), the Cougs rank 70th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They have done an all right job slowing opponents down — especially Prairie View A&M, which usually loves to get on the break and run — and they also have done a solid job rebounding.

However, they are forcing virtually no turnovers and giving up way too many open looks from deep. The Cougs rank 339th in opponent turnover rate and 221st in opponent three-point percentage. There is a notable lack of athleticism and effort on the perimeter and it has combined with lackluster rim-protection to make WSU’s defense mediocre overall.

Under Kyle Smith, WSU has always been noted for their crisp defensive rotations, but they have been notably slower this season. It is not something that shows up on every play, but the later rotations have been consistently behind where they should be. A play like this has an initial issue with the breakdown at the point of attack, but it only is exasperated by the late help that leads to an open shot.

There has also been a lot of ball-watching throughout the two losses. It almost feels as though the Cougs underestimated their opponents and thus were a bit disengaged on defense. This led to a lot of back-cuts for open layups.

The Cougs have also struggled to finish possessions. They force teams to take a large portion of the shot-clock — 17.8 seconds on average, according to — but they fall apart at the last second. This possession has a lot of positive moments, but they give up a frustrating back-cut at the last second, making the earlier efforts moot.

Perhaps WSU’s biggest issue on defense has been at the point of attack. It was mentioned as a worry in the preseason, but there were some assumptions that the rim protection would be good enough to cover that struggle to some extent. This has not translated in the early season, and the point of attack defense has allowed for a lot of easy drives from opposing guards.

There has also just been a lot of sloppiness on defense in general. Whether it be failing to pick up in transition, standing still on the perimeter, or not rotating quick enough, the defensive effort simply hasn’t been good enough to start the season.

Can Mo Play the 5?

The elephant in the room when discussing what has gone wrong is the play of Mouhamed Gueye. The Cougs have built this team around him, and they have expected him to be a hub on both offense and defense — but he has not been able to fulfill that role so far this season.

Gueye is going to have to step up his play no matter how things go, but there are also questions as to whether or not he can even play the five going forward. It is vital for Gueye and this staff to figure out how he can be successful, because if he continues to play like he has, the Cougs will be mostly uncompetitive in conference play.

It is instructive to remember that Gueye rarely played as the lone big-man last season. He had some minutes as the main five, but the majority of the possessions he played was at the four next to Efe Abogidi or Dishon Jackson. While we expected him to be able to step into the main rim protector role with ease, it has proven much more difficult in the early season. Last season, Gueye posted impressive steal and block rates at 2.3% and 4.8% respectively. Both those numbers are down this season, and it’s notable because the block rate was expected to take a massive jump with him playing more minutes as the primary rim protector.

This is a good example of the issues that have plagued Gueye so far this season. It is not necessarily a motor issue, but he does look lackadaisical at times and he seems a bit slow to read the drives of offensive players. This is also a mistake — likely a mistake by Bamba — as there is some miscommunication between the two, but Gueye not moving at all to get in the way or rotating quickly to make a play at the rim is hard to watch.

Gueye has also struggled with fouling in the Cougs’ two losses. He had four fouls against Boise State and two against PVAMU in only 19 minutes. It is made more frustrating by the fact that he has a consistent size advantage that he just doesn’t trust enough. Here, he reaches on Tyson Degenhart when he could have just stayed big and contested the shot better. Most of his fouls have come in one-on-one defense rather than help, which shows that he is taking unnecessary gambles and putting himself in a bad spot.

Gueye’s offense has also been a struggle in the early season. Discounting a solid first game against Texas State, Gueye has shot 4-17 from the field and 0-2 from three while also mightily struggling with turnovers. A major reason for these struggles has been him settling for bad shots in early offense. On a play like this, he has solid position and he is guarded by a much less athletic big. Taking advantage of his quickness would be preferable, but instead he takes a contested mid-range jumper.

A play like this also represents him not using an advantage. Degenhart is strong so backing him down doesn’t work, but there are multiple moments where he has an open spin to his left or a makeable hook with his right. Instead, he allows himself to get pushed off and he takes a bad fadeaway.

This is what a much better post-up possession from Gueye looks like, as he shows patience waiting for a side to clear. He keeps his head up looking for passes, and then he attacks decisively. Plays like this get him to the line and Gueye has clearly improved there, shooting 83% on solid volume through the early season. Gueye has the skillset to be an uber-efficient big-man if he just buys in and plays with an attacking mindset.

Gueye has struggled to make reads in non-traditional situations so far this season. Again, this is something that was expected in a lot of ways; when players take a step-up in role, they tend to turn the ball over more as they learn how to properly operate within that role. However, Gueye’s 16.8% turnover rate is hard to overcome, especially considering where his usage is coming from. He flashed some improved passing and decision-making in the Texas State game, but that did not carry over to the last two losses.

It is a general positive that Gueye wants to expand his game, and that was always going to come with growing pains. Taking more jumpers or making more reads as a passer is not an inherently bad thing, but he cannot neglect the big-man things that are still important to accomplish. He still has to be efficient with his post-moves, he still needs to set good screens and roll hard, and he should realize he is an elite athlete compared to most of his defenders and use that to his advantage when attacking from the perimeter or the high-post. Good things happen when Gueye plays his role right and uses his advantages to score.

Gueye can still be a star and the guy we all expected him to be, but he will need to take steps forward to achieve that goal. In many ways, the Cougs will ride or die on what Gueye can provide on a game-to-game basis. The Cougs have built this roster around Gueye, much like how last year’s roster was built around Noah Williams. This year’s team is much less equipped to handle Gueye playing like Williams did last year and they desperately need him to play like he did last year if they hope to make a run in March.

Scheme Changes

It is hard to say whether or not there should be some overarching changes when it comes to Kyle Smith’s scheme and system. The issue has rarely been the plays being called or the defensive sets put in place; it has been much more about the execution of those sets. It is valuable to analyze what has worked so far and how it can be emulated going forward.

This is what a well-run chest set looks like. Gueye gets big and makes himself look like a threat by facing up towards the rim. Mullins then slips hard to the rim rather than coming off the downscreen and he gets an open look at the rim before the refs waive it off. Not every chest set should involve a back-cut, but reading the defense, being decisive, and moving quickly and cleanly is vital to making this play work at a high volume.

The shot doesn’t fall, but this schemed jumper for Powell is the type of set that should probably be run a bit more often to get shots for Powell. When playing off the ball, Powell can be elite as a movement shooter, but those types of shots often need to be schemed with proper off-ball screens and some occasionally complex movement patterns.

The ball-screen system for WSU is one that could be effective if players like Powell get more aggressive when creating in it. This is an excellent screen set-up and step-back jumper from Powell and it is the type of thing that would be great to see more. His craft, passing, and shooting are all legit, he just needs to trust in it more.

Finally, whether it be scheme or roster buy-in, getting on the offensive glass harder is important for this team to have an efficient offense. Last year, it was a significant portion of their overall offensive package and they still have the talent to succeed on the glass.

Trusting the Youth

The solution to a lot of the PG issues might already be in the roster. Dylan Darling was an unheralded recruit who few expected to play this year, but there is an argument that he should start for this team. While there will be some growing pains, some bad games here and there, Darling can theoretically solve a lot of the issues that the Cougs face at the PG position. Here, he gets by a guy with no screen, showing off his athleticism, and he uses his strength to keep him behind and finish.

Darling’s driving looked more than solid against Prairie View A&M. The Panthers are a pretty athletic squad, but Darling still managed to create advantages from a standstill, with or without a screen, consistently. More impressively, his passing out of drives looked solid, both to roll men and on kickouts to the perimeter.

Darling’s defense was also stellar. His effort popped and he was far and away the most engaged person on the floor. He is quick laterally and he uses his strength well to push drivers off their spots. Watching him fly through off-ball screens was a breath of fresh air after the struggles the other defenders had getting through screens.

There is a real chance that Darling will be the Cougs’ best option against Pac-12 guards like Tyger Campbell and Frankie Collins. There will be moments where his size might be an issue and he likely won’t be able to keep this type of intensity up for 25 plus minutes a game, but it is still impressive to watch and it might solve the Cougs’ biggest defensive issue.

The one major worry about Darling playing with the starters is that he has seemed hesitant to shoot at times. His high school tape suggests that he can hit jumpers, but he will need to be aggressive in taking open ones. He hit one jumper against PVAMU that looked solid and he went two of two from the line, but he will need to be willing to hit from deep as well if he is to step into a bigger role.

As time goes on, Houinsou makes a lot of sense as the 6th or 7th man for the Cougs. He has proven to be versatile, playing the three through the five for the Cougs, and he provides value in a lot of non-traditional ways. His rebounding and athleticism pop, with some excellent moments as a driver. In time, I could see him being the primary driver of offense off the bench and even closing some games because he is one of the few players on the team who can get to the rim and make decisions from there.

Houinsou has a lot of moments as a driver that pop. He has great shift as a ball-handler, good explosiveness, and he is already excellent at getting to the line. He needs to add finishing craft and some of his decisions can be a bit erratic, but the talent is obvious and the rim pressure is vital for this team.

Adrame Diongue should likely be the go-to backup five if there aren’t any injury issues present. He had some rough moments in terms of running the plays, but he flashed a lot of effort on both ends. He is the best screener on the team and his defensive intensity is impressive. He has a lot of little things that need to be fixed, but his intensity is legit.

This is an example of Diongue’s screening and he gets to show of his athleticism here as well. He sets an excellent screen, something WSU’s other players have struggled with, and then Darling makes a great read to find him on the roll to the rim. Things like this could make him a valuable back-up big or even a starter if WSU decided to start two big alignments to maximize defense.

Diongue has also flashed some nice moments as a quick decision-maker. It is nothing major, but he makes a quick read after the press is broken, sees one defender is guarding both him and the corner, so he goes and gets a seal in the post. This move opens up a jumper for Carlos Rosario that wouldn’t have been there if Diongue didn’t seal. Little things like this help make bigs valuable rotation players, and Diongue has flashed the feel to make an impact.

Rosario is also someone who has impressed off the bench, and he should continue to be a valuable bench wing for this team. He has flashed solid strength and touch on drives and he plays with a high motor. He makes a lot of sense as an energy player off the bench who can provide value defensively.

Overall, trusting the youth more in the rotation might lead to some minor annoyances, but it would increase the athleticism, energy, and rim finishing. It is worth the tradeoff for the Cougs to have some effort-based mistakes if it means that the overall picture is better. Houinsou and Darling specifically offer potential fixes to major issues: point of attack defense, rim pressure, and passing.

It feels like the biggest changes will likely come from the rotation. After his performance against PVAMU, it makes a lot of sense to put Darling into the starting lineup in place of Mullins. Mullins could still provide value on the bench, but he does not solve any of the major issues facing this team and Darling, potentially, does. Houinsou makes a lot of sense as a big rotation piece, potentially finishing games when playing well. It would also be nice to see Diongue get more minutes if he is healthy enough to do so, as his athleticism and motor would be a huge boost to WSU’s defense.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this WSU team is still one that can make some noise. I still believe in them as a top half of the Pac-12 team with a chance to make the tournament with some big wins. Overcoming these early losses will not be easy, and addressing the issues present with the rotation, scheme, and overall effort level is vital, but there is still a fun season to be had. The talent is there and this coaching staff has proven effective before.

We’ll see if they can do it again.

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