Posted on January 1, 2021
Most fans would think an undefeated school at the top of their conference rankings would be on the national radar. Although the WSU men’s basketball team received votes in the Week 3 AP poll, the Cougars have yet to receive any more votes despite going 8-0 to start the season.
The Cougars triumphed through their nonconference schedule with little-to-no fault. Some injuries and dismal first half performances gave WSU some speed bumps along the way, but this didn’t affect their loss column once.
But the Pac-12 Conference schedule will be a brand-new mountain for the Cougars to climb. If WSU is going to have any chance of entering the national conversation or earn an NCAA tournament invitation, there are five things the team needs to answer, refine, or maintain going into 2021.
1. Defense, defense, defense
If there’s one element of the game that WSU has routinely excelled in this season, it’s defense. The Cougars rank first in the nation (Yes, I said ‘nation’) in opponent field goal percentage at 33.7 percent. In fact, the Cougars have allowed a team to shoot over 40 percent from the field just once this season. Considering that the conference average on offense is around 45 percent, I’d say WSU’s defense this year has been pretty special.
This Cougar defense needs to continue, most likely exceed, its dominance going into the conference schedule. There are too many dangerous scorers in the Pac-12 to keep track of and taking them out of the equation in these conference games would make WSU the favorite to win more often than not. Defense turns into more opportunities on offense, which WSU could certainly use considering the team is known to have a handful of scoring droughts in some of their games.
As far as defensive matchups go, WSU head coach Kyle Smith needs to keep matching up sophomore guard Noah Williams against the opponent’s top scoring guards. With the presence of freshman center Efe Abogidi in the post, the opponent’s offense will have virtually no alternative when the duo locks down their respective domains.
2. Efe Abogidi’s transition into conference play
Efe Abogidi had a tremendous last three games of the non-conference schedule averaging 16.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game during that span. He’s just the second freshman in school history to achieve three straight double-doubles, the last time being in 1974. I’d say the reigning Pac-12 freshman of the Week is well deserving of the honor.
But Abogidi can’t get too comfortable with his play just yet; after all, he’s played just one Power 5 school in Oregon State. That game against the Beavers was one of his worst of the season, scoring just five points on 2-5 shooting. Yes, this was just his third collegiate game ever, but considering that the Beavers were the only team ranked lower than WSU in the Pac-12 preseason polls, this should be at least a little concerning.
Abogidi’s athleticism will be a great starting point for his potential impact in conference play, but it really comes down to his decision-making. His sporadic tenacity on defense leads to some unnecessary fouls and he, as well some players on the team, always seems to be looking for a highlight finish of sorts on offense. He needs to remain grounded and take advantage of the opportunities presented to him, as there may not be a lot of them in Pac-12 play.
3. Noah Williams continuing his dominance on both sides of the ball
I knew Noah Williams was going to improve in his sophomore season, but I may have undersold him at the start of the season. His defense remains a staple in his basketball arsenal, but his impact on offense is sending Pac-12 opponents into a loop. Other than his miniscule presence against Northwestern State, due to a collision he took early in the game, he completely turned his game around after a two-point season opener performance.
Possibly the largest question going into the 2020-21 season for WSU was who was going to step up for the team on offense. We knew senior guard Isaac Bonton was the prime candidate, but this season has been far from a one man show. The team has involved numerous players in the offense so far this season with almost every player having a breakout performance of sorts. But Williams’ name appears more often than any other player when it comes to “good games”.
He’s said numerous times that he’s pursuing a Defensive Player of the Year award during his collegiate career. At the rate he’s going now, he may end up not only as a candidate for the award, but a borderline All-Conference selection for his efforts on offense as well. Considering that this will be his second time playing a conference schedule and his best games come against the toughest opponents, Williams will be a vital part in the Cougars’ momentum going forward.
4. Isaac Bonton finding the answer
Bonton was assumed to be the leader for WSU going into this season. Although this may still be true in terms of leadership, his performance on offense has been off. One aspect of the game that leaves fans concerned is his free throw numbers. He was highly regarded as one of WSU’s best shooters from the charity stripe, but his percentage from the line has dropped nearly 20 percent from last year’s numbers.
Yes, the shooting from the free throw line is a small part of the game. But his shot selection as a whole has become worse this year as well. This is most likely due to him trying to put the team on his back on offense. Although this looked like a possibility before the season, his teammates have proved that they are more than capable of putting points on the board on a semi-consistent basis.
So as the starting point guard, he seems to be turning towards ball distribution more. But some unnecessary no-look passes, and fancy moves lead to an inexcusable amount of turnovers. With all of this being said, Bonton is still the most talented player on offense for this team, and he still leads the team in points per game. But his decision-making and nerves need to be taken care of in conference play, or it may cost the team a game in the future.
5. Attacking the glass and giving the offense second chances
Somewhat of a ‘sleeper stat’ for the Cougars this year has been the rebounding numbers. WSU ranks 15th in the nation in rebounds per game with 43.4, a seven-board improvement from last year’s numbers. The addition of Abogidi and freshman center Dishon Jackson have certainly helped on the glass, but the wing players play a huge role in the team’s rebounding as well.
These rebound stats may seem boring to some fans, but the offensive boards have quietly kept WSU in this undefeated streak. Offensive boards give the offense more chances to score (go figure). But when this team goes through five-to-eight-minute-long scoring droughts at least once a game, these offensive boards help WSU get back to scoring again.
The defensive efforts from WSU shows no signs of slowing down in 2021, but rebounding could take a dip against Pac-12 bigs. Four teams in the Pac-12 average nearly or over 40 rebounds per game, so young centers in Abogidi and freshman Volodymyr Markovetskyy may be due for a bit of a culture shock. The responsibility really falls on the guards and wing players to continue the teams presence on the glass.
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Root: Falling to Arizona was best loss possible for 8-0 WSUPlaying the Wildcats tough showed the Cougars are a legitimate threat this season - January 7, 2021
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