Basketball season is almost upon us — the Washington State men tip off tonight at 4:30 p.m. PT to open their season — and the Palouse is buzzing with excitement. It has been well over a decade since WSU made a tournament run, but Kyle Smith and his staff have continually improved year after year and the next step looks to be a return to March Madness.
The offseason was a successful one for the Cougs, as they retained a lot of top talent, got two major impact transfers, and brought in an excellent recruiting class to boot. This is likely the most talented team Smith has ever coached, and they are poised to make major noise in the Pac-12.
Last year, the Cougs made a return to postseason basketball by making the NIT for the first time since 2011. They have lost some important pieces in Michael Flowers, Efe Abogidi, Noah Williams, and Tyrell Roberts, but they have replaced them with intriguing, high-upside talent. The Cougs are bigger this year with better passing and shooting up and down the roster, but there are some questions about who will run the offense and what the defense might look like without two elite shot blockers on the floor.
The Cougs finished 44th overall in Adjusted Efficiency last season, according to Kenpom. They were an impressive 28th in defense and an above-average 82nd in offense. They somewhat underperformed that ranking due to close losses early in the season and a tough five-game losing streak in the back half of the year in which three of the losses came by a total of eight points. However, there were some strong bright spots last year, with the most notable being the development of a lot of players and dominance against mid-majors in the NIT.
It felt like last year’s team took a little bit of time to gel, and some players never fully fit. Williams, who is now across the state at UW, never found his footing last year despite a strong end to his sophomore year and the roster being seemingly built around him, and his high usage/low efficiency combo hurt the team at times. Flowers took awhile to step into the true PG role, and it made the early season offense a bit hard to come by at times.
This year’s team has just as many newcomers, but it feels like the fit is a bit more obvious and things should hopefully come together a bit quicker.
Last year’s offense took some time to find an identity, but once it did, it looked pretty smooth. The Cougs were predicated on the three-point shot, as they were first in the Pac-12 in made threes, attempted threes, and three-point attempts per field goal attempt. They also ranked fairly high in three-point efficiency, as they finished fifth in the conference in three-point percentage.
Smith’s offense rarely gets busy in the mid-range, preferring players to pull from 22-feet rather than 16, and that tends to pay off with more efficient offenses. The staff incentivizes three pointers not only through encouraging confidence in their shooters, but through running sets with the goal of getting threes. This season, the roster is even more built around generating three-point shots than it was last year. Last season’s lineups almost always had two to three non-shooters on the court at a time (Williams, Abogidi, Mouhamed Gueye, Dishon Jackson). This year’s team will have a lot more lineups with four — or even five — shooters on it.
The Cougs were also aggressively analytical in the possession game, both by preventing turnovers and hitting the glass hard to maximize their shot volume. They ranked 59th in the nation in turnover percentage at only 16.6%, due primarily to the prowess of Flowers, who was excellent at handling the ball for long stretches of time and making plays for others. This also was due to the scheme, where decisions from non-primaries are flattened and high-risk plays are not encouraged.
This year, it is possible that the turnover number rises despite the overall boost in passing prowess. While it sounds counterintuitive, oftentimes having better passers leads to more turnovers because players will be more aggressive trying to find teammates. The positive tradeoffs tend to make this worth it, with easier buckets coming more frequently as a result of the extra passes.
The Cougs also ranked 33rd nationally in offensive rebound rate and third in the Pac-12. This prowess on the glass will take a step-back with the loss of Abogidi, who was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, but Gueye and Andrej Jakimovski are returners who bring excellence in this area, and freshman Adrame Diongue also projects as an elite offensive rebounder. The possession game was a major factor in WSU’s offense last season and it will continue to be one going forward. They consistently got more shots up than opponents and that helped them make up for a lot of their other deficiencies on that end.
WSU was a slow-paced team, and that seems to be Smith’s preference despite how breakneck they were in his inaugural season, in which the Cougs played an up-tempo offense due to their turnover based defensive scheme. When the defensive talent shifted in the second season, so did the tempo.
Last year, the Cougs were 276th in average possession length on offense. They were incredibly patient when looking for shots, and they tended to generate good ones. They were rarely taking dumb shots in early offense, and they would rather run the clock to 2 seconds than take an unnecessary, contested shot. The goal on every possession was to generate either a three or an attempt at the rim; it was an incredibly modern offensive strategy that worked. even if the talent was not always great when it came to rim pressure.
This program is known for playing the analytics — Nerdball has been the norm for Smith and staff and that will remain this season. Expect them to stay near the top of the country in three-point attempts, consistently win the possession game, and play at a deliberate speed. The term “live by the three, die by the three” became a constant refrain from some fans, and we expect to hear that after tough losses this year as well. However, with the roster constructed, that style of play certainly makes the most sense and should produce another above-average offense.
WSU’s sets are generally simple but effective. They are built around getting the ball in the hands of their playmakers or generating threes through off-ball movement. Last season, they ran a pick-and-roll heavy scheme that reached peak effectiveness towards the end of the season as Flowers got more comfortable operating it. This season, the Cougs will still rely on that pick-and-roll base to set-up a lot of their offense, but they lack a true PG to run a high volume. That means that someone is going to have to step up into that role or they are going to have a run a more egalitarian scheme, with more ball-movement and off-ball screening.
The main pick-and-roll set the Cougs ran last year was a simple middle ball-screen. This involves both corners being filled, one wing being filled, and the screen being set toward the weakside- the side with only the corner filled. This is what most pick-and-rolls look like and the goal is always to force help and get the ball to an open man.
The Cougs looked to run a lot of their pick-and-rolls on an empty side last season. Whether it was set-up with passes or baseline cuts, the goal was to have the ball on a wing with an empty corner below the ball and three players bunched on the opposite side of the court. They will set these screens either way, and occasional rejections allow for easy rim pressure. The goal is to force the defense to get into rotation and open up a three or a closeout attack to the rim.
The freedom to go either way in these empty sets allows for easier advantages to be created because the defense cannot always force one way. Icing these screens — forcing the ball-handler baseline — often makes sense in these scenarios, but that also often forces switches, and the pulling guard up top could get the ball quickly into the post. With the extra shooting provided this season, the floor will be even more spaced and open for drives and post-ups off of this action.
The Cougs would occasionally run specialized pick-and-roll plays and these will probably be an even larger staple in the offense without Flowers running the show. North screens happen in center court, generally with both corners filled. One player is on the block as the screen is set and that player rises to the wing as the screener rolls. The goal is to get defenders to rub off each other or confuse them so that either the roll-man has two players guarding him or the shooter has two players guarding him, leading to an open shot.
Spain pick-and-rolls are similar to north screens, but they involve a screen being set by the shooter for the roll-man. The shooter does not have to start at the block like on north screens, but they can start on the block if the play calls for it.
Spain pick-and-rolls are effective and they will get even more so with WSU’s stable of snipers. Imagining Williams and DJ Rodman replaced with Justin Powell or Jabe Mullins makes this set even deadlier and it will put defenses in a scary spot.
WSU also runs a lot of sets to generate threes with off-ball movement. This is a pretty simple cyclone screen action where the big sets an upscreen for the off-ball guard to get downhill on and then the big flips the screen to get the guard open above the break.
This is a double pindown — or headpat — set that is meant to create an advantage with off-ball screening. Here, Jakimovski curls off the screen to draw a defender toward the basket and then Tyrell Roberts comes off the same screen and pops up to the wing ready to shoot.
The Cougs will also run simple actions like this flair screen, where the big sets a screen to get the off-ball shooter moving away from the ball. This could result in an immediate shot, but it usually leads to the big flipping his hips and setting an advantaged ball-screen. The defender guarding the shooter is likely already out of position and it makes a drive much easier.
They also like this little Valparaiso play out of a pistol set. Pistol sets are where two guards get on top of each other on the wing, whether it be with a handoff, a pass, or a live dribble. Here, Flowers dribbles over to Roberts. Abogidi then sets a flair screen, flips the screen, and gets Roberts wide open for the shot.
The Cougs set up lots of actions out of pistol sets. On this play, they run the flair and nothing comes of it. So, they get set-up into their empty side pick-and-roll. When the ball reverses to the top of the key, the person on the wing cuts through and the corner man rises. This could open up a variety of options and it allows for the same set-up to exist on the other wing should it reverse again.
They will also use the pistol set as a way to set-up other movements within the offense. Here, the pistol set leads to a reversal and into a post-up. The Cougs are intentional about their spacing and movement out of this set and it leads to an excellent shot from deep.
This is a set commonly referred to as a “five-set.” This is where the bigs catch the ball on a reversal, turn the floor, and hand the ball off to a guard. Unsurprisingly, this gets the Cougs into an empty side look and it leaves the pocket wide open up for a dumpoff.
While the bigs are not asked to be playmakers at all, they do often reverse the floor and get into dribble handoffs. Handoffs are a solid alternative to normal pick-and-rolls because they allow for the big to enter into the set with momentum. It also forces opposing bigs to play higher, because if they sag off as a handoff occurs, they likely won’t be in position to help and contest a shot from deep.
On of out of bounds plays, the Cougs like to run a simple dribble handoff in the corner. This type of play can either result in a handoff and a corner three or a fake handoff and a drive. This play worked more often than it didn’t and teams struggled to balance getting out to the corner with preventing a drive.
Replacing Flowers is an incredibly tall task, as his pick-and-roll prowess made the offense as potent as it was. He was a superstar for WSU down the stretch of last season and that production will be hard to replace. The one question that will come up a lot with this team is “what will they do at point,” and a lot of that comes from the loss of Flowers and not bringing in a clear replacement in terms of a proven pick-and-roll playmaker.
Roberts and Williams will be, in some ways, addition by subtraction. Williams struggled mightily with efficiency last season, but he led the team in usage despite those efficiency issues. His 25% usage on 42.7% true shooting was rough, and it made him hard to play in crunch time late in the season. Roberts’ shooting was incredibly important for the Cougs, but his passing deficiencies’ often hurt the flow of the offense and his struggles to finish made many of his drives non-factors. Replacing those two with better size and shooting could go a long way towards boosting WSU’s offense.
WSU’s backcourt is built around size and shooting, with advantage creation being the worry. Returning star TJ Bamba is joined by the newcoming red-headed reapers in Jabe Mullins and Justin Powell. This trio has elite size for a backcourt and all of them bring good-to-great efficiency as shooters from deep. The question will be who has the highest usage and runs the highest volume of pick-and-roll. Both Powell and Bamba have attributes to like as primary guys, but neither are traditional point guards and easy advantages might be hard to come by.
The depth in the backcourt brings a lot of intrigue as well. Kymany Houinsou is maybe the highest upside player on this whole team, as his size, burst, and shiftiness is rare for a point guard and even more rare in Pullman. Dylan Darling is a freshman who is set to surprise with his solidness as a pick-and-roll player, downhill driving ability, and projectable jumper. Overall, this backcourt room is a bit unproven, but there is a lot of potential upside.
The wings are the heart of this team. Andrej Jakimovski and DJ Rodman bring elite hustle and motor to the offensive end. Jakimovski is another elite shooter who should fit into the starting lineup and he offers upside as a playmaker. He could have a higher usage than most expect if he fills the point forward role many expected of him prior to his freshman season. Rodman will likely fill a depth role, but if the shot can get more consistent, then his rebounding and closeout attacking could bring a lot of versatility to the offense.
The frontcourt has one proven star who will be the primary roll man and post scorer for the Cougs. He is an excellent roll-man and playing in better spacing should open up those rolls even more. His post scoring will be interesting to monitor, as he struggled last season but he has the skills to do it. Gueye’s shooting and isolation scoring from the perimeter is a real swing skill for him this season. He struggled to shoot last season, but his form looks solid and his high school tape suggests he can get some buckets in isolation.
The back-up bigs are two freshmen in Adrame Diongue and Mael Hamon-Crespin. Diongue is similar to Gueye but with a little less handle upside and a more chops as a passer. Diongue should excel on the roll both as a finisher and a playmaker. His operation in the dribble handoff game is something to monitor, as the upside there is elite. Hamon-Crespin is a skilled forward who can stretch the floor and make plays for others. He projects to be third in the rotation behind Gueye and Diongue, but he could get early minutes to prove himself during the non-conference schedule.
The Cougs were a borderline elite defense last season, and that trend should continue this year. They were 28th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last year, with major credit going to their ability to force turnovers, their rim protection, and a little bit of shooting luck.
Opponents had a 20.5% turnover rate against the Cougs last season, which ranked 58th in the country. This was through their ability to mix up defensive schemes and the quick hands of almost everyone on the roster, especially the bigs. The Cougs ranked 40th in the country in opponents’ effective field goal percentage, which was both thanks to excellent rim protection — they blocked 12.3% of 2-pointers as a team, 44th nationally — and perhaps also some luck with opponents’ shooting: The Cougs ranked 38th in opponent three-point percentage, but only 88th in opponents’ three-point attempts. (It is generally accepted that defense rarely affects the outcome of a three-point shot, they can only truly affect the number of three-pointers attempted.)
Even without Abogidi, the rim-protection should remain elite this season, and the Cougs could even force more turnovers as TJ Bamba picks up a bigger defensive role, and the size on the perimeter could lead to more steals. The Cougs were a surprisingly good at forcing non-steal turnovers, and that was likely a product of their scheme and hustle players and that should continue going forward.
The Cougs play the numbers on defense in the same way they do on offense, preferring to run players off the line and protect the rim. This will be the same ethos this season with improved size helping boost the overall defensive playmaking.
The most notable aspect of WSU’s defense is the versatility with how they cover the pick-and-roll. Anyone who watches the team live will notice how aggressive the coaches are at yelling out different calls from the bench, and that is often to do with the pick-and-roll scheme. Whether it be deep drops, hard hedges, or ices, the Cougs are constantly giving offenses different looks and it makes it hard to for opponents to get into a rhythm. The core principles of trying to run shooters off the line and protect the rim are always present, but the versatility is vital for their success.
The most common pick-and-roll defense for the Cougs is a simple catch. This is also often referred to as drop defense, where the big or the forward guarding the screener gives ground to the ball-handler, keeping himself between the ball, the roll-man, and the rim. The goal in drop is to protect the rim and force opponents to take a mid-range shot.
A hard hedge is when the big-man defender gets even with the screen and meets the ball-handler out on the floor. This is usually meant to force a ball pick-up way out on the floor and get the ball out of a playmaker’s hands.
The main negative with hedging is that it automatically gets the defense in rotation. The opposing big needs to be tagged or stunted to by the wing defender and then the hedging defender has to recover. Crafty guards will find a way to keep their dribble alive and can pick apart hard hedges; however, a well-executed hedge will force the offense into isolation ball because the pick-and-roll creates no advantages.
Hedges are often most effective when bigger players are running pick-and-rolls. It is harder for a big wing to split a hedge than it is for a quick guard. It is also easier when the big setting the screen isn’t an elite roll-man or shooter. If the screener has limited gravity, then bigs don’t have to be too worried about getting back to their man.
An ice is when the guard funnels the ball-handler baseline and into the big defender. This usually happens on the left side of the floor as players tend to be right-hand dominant and forcing them left is beneficial. The point of an ice is to make creating any advantage difficult and it tends to result in a ball reversal or a mid-range jumper.
It is possible for ices to be more aggressive and turn into switches. This play results in a foul, but aggressive switching where the big steps up and the guard dives into the passing lane can lead to steals or force risky passes.
The Cougs will occasionally switch ball-screens if a wing is involved instead of a big. They could potentially switch with Gueye at the five as well, but they will probably do it either way if someone like Rodman or Jakimovski is guarding the screener. Doing this could occasionally give the offense a matchup they want, but it forces the offense to take more time to create an advantage.
Easily the most impressive part of WSU’s defense was their rim protection. Losing Abogidi will hurt that and it is yet to be seen how often WSU will run two-big alignments this season. However, Gueye is certainly capable of stepping into the role as an elite rim-protector and being the primary backstop for the Cougs.
To the dismay of many fans, the Cougs ran a solid amount of zone last year. The zone was not awful in every sense, but it did concede a lot of good looks for opponents. With improved size, the zone could look a little better. There are still worries about the general threat assessment within our zone defense, as good shooters get wide-open looks a little too often and that is an issue that goes beyond the backcourt size.
The staff especially loves to go to a zone on baseline out of bounds plays. The goal is to take away easy looks and force the offense to reset and run a play from scratch. Most BLOB plays are meant to beat man set-ups with easy dives to the rim or open threes, but zone buster BLOBs are often more about getting the ball up top to run something else.
It was hard to not be constantly energized by the effort and intensity that the Cougs played with. They were consistently the first players to dive on the floor or make an aggressive rotation in an effort to get a stop or a turnover. The team played with an elite motor and that should continue this season, especially with Bamba taking a bigger step-up into a leadership role.
The main defensive losses for the Cougs are Abogidi, Roberts, and Williams. Abogidi is certainly the most difficult to replace, as he was one of the best shot-blockers in the country and his quick hands and overall athleticism made him a threat all over the court. Roberts was a solid point of attack defender who was limited by size, but he got over screens well and kept guards from getting easy advantages. Williams’ defensive playmaking was solid last season and it’s not certain where that playmaking aptitude will be made up.
The name of the game for WSU’s backcourt defense this year is size. Powell, Mullins, and Bamba are all oversized guards who should be able to make plays in passing lanes and contest shots at a high level. Bamba could potentially be an elite playmaker and above-average point-of-attack defender. Both Mullins and Powell are solid rotational defenders who make the right play consistently on defense, but both project as below-average point-of-attack defenders. That said, Mullins has had flashes of solid lateral movement and strength to get over screens. The guard depth of Houinsou and Darling bring solid point-of-attack skills and playmaking. Houinsou specifically projects as a borderline elite guard defender who could step into major minutes as a ball stopper early.
The wing defenders are solid, but not elite in both on-ball offense and rotational offense. Jakimovski is a solid lateral mover who struggles when guarding ultra-bursty guards, but he contains wings well. Rodman is a step above Jakimovski as an on-ball defender and his strength allows him to guard some bigs down low. Neither of the wings are great playmakers in passing lanes or at the rim, but they are both consistently in the right spot, and that goes a long way defensively.
Finally, the top two big defenders are potentially elite. Gueye is already being looked at as an NBA caliber rim-protector with some upside with scheme versatility thanks to his lateral movement. Gueye could potentially be the best defensive player in the conference this season, and that would help keep the Cougs near that top 25 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating. Diongue is a bit more polished as a rim-protector than Gueye was as a freshman and he is potentially an even quicker leaper. His verticality is already elite, and he could make major early impacts. Hamon-Crespin is not a great rim-protector, but his strength might allow him to handle big-men down low better than Gueye or Diongue can, something the team needs in the absence of Dishon Jackson.
The early season schedule for the Cougs is difficult, and they will be thrown into the fire early. Texas State comes to town for the opener, and the Bobcats are the preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt, which is no slouch of a mid-major conference. They then go on the road for three straight games, including one against Boise State, who was one of the best Mid-Major teams in the country last year. Detroit Mercy comes to town and brings one of the most electric scorers in the country right before the Pac-12 tipoff against a projected favorite in Oregon. The non-conference schedule finishes off with road trips to Las Vegas to take on UNLV, Waco to play former national champions Baylor, and then a Christmas week tournament in Maui.
The difficulty of this early schedule will allow us to see what this team truly is. We know the talent here is impressive and the coaching staff has proven effective in building schemes that work on both ends. However, last year we saw early season struggles against good teams because we just hadn’t put all the pieces together yet. Here, the Cougs will be forced to be ready early and the schemes and rotations are gotten tighten much earlier than they usually do.
Come Pac-12 play, this team will either be in a major hole or they will already be building a solid resume for a tournament trip, depending on how those tough early season games go. The Pac-12 is much improved from last year, which was notably poor for a power conference, but the Cougs certainly have the talent to compete. WSU will almost never be at a major athleticism, size, or shooting deficit, and that goes a long way. If every game is competitive, then all it takes is a couple shots for big games to go WSU’s way.
This team might just be the team that gets WSU back to the tournament in March. There are some worries, including the lack of a true PG and inexperienced depth, but the overall feel, shooting, and size on this roster is hard to come by in Pullman. This should be one of the best shooting teams in the country with a well-above average defense. This team could struggle at times, but they project to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 and compete for a legitimate spot in the tournament come March.