Washington State Preview: Battling Irrelevance

Posted by Michael Lemaire on November 12th, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Our last stop is Pullman.

Washington State Cougars

Thanks in large part to one of the most prolific scorers in the country (DaVonte Lacy) and the surprising breakout season from double-double machine Josh Hawkinson, the Cougars were actually pretty competitive in their first year under head coach Ernie Kent. They finished just 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12, but managed to pull off a few upsets along the way. More generally, they almost always found a way to hang tough. Now, with Lacy, three-point specialist Dexter Kernich-Drew and seven-footer Jordan Railey all graduated, things get trickier for Kent in year two. He gets both Hawkinson and steady point guard Ike Iroegbu back, so if the Cougars can find contributions from a few other returnees and what may be a very underrated recruiting class, Washington State may be able to tread water in a deep Pac-12.

New Head Coach Ernie Kent Brings New Hope To The Paloose (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Head Coach Ernie Kent Has A Lot Of Work Ahead Of Him. (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Strengths: Kent took over a team ranked dead last in the conference in offensive efficiency and in just one year, had that mark among the upper half of the Pac-12. The former Oregon head man definitely deserves a lot of the credit for that turnaround, but the unexpected emergence of Hawkinson didn’t hurt. At 6’10”, 245 pounds, Hawkinson is fully capable of tussling in the paint yet also possesses a gentle touch around the rim. But there’s more to the skill set: He also proved to be a truly elite rebounder (third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) while also making 85 percent of his free throws. He is undoubtedly his team’s biggest strength. There’s little doubt that Hawkinson will see a lot more double-teams with Lacy gone, but he is still a good bet to improve upon last season’s averages of 14.7 PPG and 10.8 RPG. Another Cougars’ strength: This is a team that also doesn’t turn the ball over very much. Hawkinson protected the ball better last season than every player in the Pac-12 other than Josh Scott, and Iroegbu may be able to cut down on his turnovers with increased comfort in his role. The offense will take a step back without Lacy and Kernich-Drew, but this should still be a capable offensive unit.

Weaknesses: The reason the Cougars didn’t win more games a season ago? They fielded one of the worst defensive teams in the entire country. Kent’s club was one of the three worst teams in the country in forcing turnovers. They allowed opponents to shoot better than 50 percent on two-point field goal attempts. Defending the three-point line was even harder for them, as they allowed opponents to convert from deep on 37 percent of their attempts. The scary part of this story is that it could get even worse this season now that Railey and his shot-blocking ability is no longer in Pullman. Kent brings in four long, athletic players who all have the ability to develop into plus defenders in the backcourt and on the wing. However, these four will also be new to Division I college basketball, so an adjustment period should be expected. It would also be nice of the newcomers supply a dose of outside shooting, as the Cougars, already not a great three-point shooting team, got even worse when Kernich-Drew (43.3% 3FG) and Lacy (33.0% 3FG) graduated. Freshman Viont’e Daniels could help remedy this weakness.

Non-conference Tests: Everybody is excited to watch Washington State square off against Idaho State and Portland State, right? Hmmmm, maybe not. Overall, it’s somewhat of an indictment of the Cougars’ non-conference schedule that KenPom has Wazzu favored in all but two of their non-conference contests, especially given that they are then favored in just two Pac-12 games. Those two expected non-conference losses are against legitimate competition, however. A home date with Gonzaga and a first-round matchup with Oklahoma in the Diamond Head Classic are two matchups that would look difficult on any team’s schedule. Depending on how things break, one or two more resume-building games may appear in the Diamond Head Classic, but outside of that tournament and the Gonzaga game, the rest of the schedule is pretty light.

Toughest Conference Stretch: Considering Washington State is expected to win just two conference games all season, technically every stretch of the conference slate is tough. But asking the Cougars to play five of their last seven games on the road seems especially cruel for a team that isn’t expected to win very often anyway. The Cougars do have some winnable games in conference, but it would be surprising if they won more than one true road game this season.

Biggest Story: It is admittedly hard to come up with big stories for a team this far off the national radar. Ernie Kent’s redemption tour is potentially intriguing in theory, assuming Kent actually finds any redemption (which likely won’t be any time this year). Hawkinson is likely to become more of a household name this season if he continues to put up gaudy rebound totals, but still, if you asked 100 college basketball fans who Hawkinson is, you would be lucky to find five who know the answer.  Compensating for the loss of Lacy’s scoring punch will be an interesting subplot, although not too many people ever knew who Lacy was, either. Given all that, the biggest story in Pullman may be the maturation of the team’s newcomers. None of Kent’s four recruits arrive with much buzz, but if their playing time in scrimmages carries over to the regular season, all will get a lot of opportunities to make an impact. If they do, that Kent redemption tour story might gain some legs next season and beyond.

After Last Season, Josh Hawkinson Can Expect Plenty Of Attention From Opposing Defenses (Photo: WSU)

If Everything Goes Right… If Iroegbu develops into an above-average point guard, Hawkinson asserts himself as the best big man in the conference and the newcomers make a significant impact, the best-case scenario is still probably just an NIT berth. Anyone who believes they have an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament is the kind of person who should be delivering halftime pep talks, because that much optimism is mostly crazy in this case.

If Nothing Goes Right… The major concern for Cougars fans is how Hawkinson will adapt to being the center of attention now that Lacy isn’t around. Hawkinson will see a lot more double-teams this season and while he should be equipped to deal with those extra men, he is going to need to figure out different ways to beat defenses. If he struggles, the freshmen don’t gel and the team never finds consistent three-point shooting, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Washington State will go winless in a deep Pac-12.

Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG Ike Iroegbu (Jr, 6’2”, 190 lbs, 8.9 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.8 RPG)
  • SG Charles Callison (Jr., 6’0’’, 183 lbs, 15.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.0 APG at San Bernadino Valley College)
  • SF Que Johnson (Jr, 6’5”, 205 lbs, 6.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 85.4 FT%)
  • PF Junior Longrus (Sr, 6’7’’, 240 lbs, 1.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
  • Josh Hawkinson (Jr, 6’10”, 245 lbs, 14.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 50.0 FG%)

Iroegbu should improve on his numbers with another year of seasoning and more responsibility. Callison is a junior college transfer who should provide some shooting, while Johnson is a talented player who played in every game as a backup last season. He should play a bigger role on both ends of the floor this year. Longrus is a big body who might eventually drift into a reserve role. Hawkinson is a known quantity who is arguably the best big man in the entire Pac-12.

Key Reserves

  • PG Ny Redding (Jr, 6’2”, 180 lbs, 4.1 PPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 RPG)
  • SG Viont’e Daniels (Fr, 6’2”, 165 lbs)
  • SF Brett Boese (Sr, 6’7”, 230 lbs, 4.3 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 36.1 3PT%)
  • SG Renard Suggs (Jr, 6’2”, 188 lbs, 14.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 38.6 3PT% at Gillette Junior College)
  • PF Robert Franks (Fr, 6’7”, 240 lbs)

Redding was the primary backup at the point last season and proved to be a willing and able distributor. Daniels is a local product who could see some time due to his shooting ability. Boese doesn’t provide much other than a decent outside stroke and a big body; he may not be athletic enough to guard on the wing. Suggs is another newcomer expected to shoulder some of the deep shooting load and Franks is a versatile freshman who has a chance to be the best newcomer the team has before all is said and done.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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