By Rich Ruben
The Trojans begin conference play Thursday at 7:30 pm at Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. The Trojans are 11-2 and the Cougars are 9-4 and coming off a home win Sunday night over Arkansas Pine- Bluff. This is a game SC should and in many respects really needs to win. The Cougs were picked to finish eleventh in the pre season conference poll. Friel Court seats 11,600, but the Cougs generally have very small crowds. On TV Sunday night it appeared there were less than 1000 people in the arena, though the announced attendance was 2100. For a first road conference game, this is an ideal situation for the Trojans, who have only three players who have ever played in a PAC 12 game.
WSU finished 11-21 last year, and have a new head coach, Kyle Smith. Smith came to Pullman from USF, where his teams won 20 or more games in each of his three seasons. Smith has said that it would be beneficial if they played in a smaller arena where the crowd could have a bigger impact on the games. In three of the last four seasons, the Cougs’ average attendance was less than 3000 per game.
Breaking Down The Cougars
WSU has almost an entirely new roster this season. They have 6 freshmen, including DJ Rodman, Dennis’ son (who hasn’t played a lot so far), and five transfers who came as grad transfers or from JCs. They return an all conference caliber player in CJ Elleby, who averaged 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman last year. The Cougs come into this game on an 8 game winning streak, but do not have a win over a “name” school. Their losses were to Santa Clara, Omaha, Nebraska and Colorado State.
WSU averages 73 points and has a +8.7 scoring margin and +2 rebounding margin per game. They take approximately 21 three point shots per game, but no one is shooting over 33% from three. As a team, the Cougars shoot only 40% from the field and 29% from three. They are making 73% of their free throws. Their opponents have taken 6 1/2 fewer shots per game, and are shooting 42% from the field and 31% from three.
Sophomore forward Elleby is the Cougs’ star. Although he is only 6’6”, he plays much bigger. He has scored over 20 in four of the last five games and averages almost 21 ppg, 6.7 rebound, and 1.8 steals. He is shooting 46% from the field, 29% from three and 81% from the line.
Coach Smith calls 6’1” redshirt junior guard Jaylen Shead the “floor general”. Shead is a transfer from Texas State, and it was not certain he would be eligible this year until close to the beginning of the season. He averages 3.4 points, 3 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game. The leading outside scorer is JC transfer 6’3” junior guard Isaac Bonton who is scoring 13 ppg, and averaging 4.3 rebounds and 3 assists. He is only shooting 41% from the floor and 29% from three, but makes 73% of his free throws.
6’9” senior forward Jeff Pollard has been the Cougs’ most effective big man so far. He is averaging 10 points and almost 5 boards per game, and is making a good 52% of his shots, but only 31% from three. He is also a good free throw shooter at 76%.
6’5” junior forward Marvin Cannon has disappointed so far this season. He is playing only 15 minutes per game and averaging 4.6 points, after averaging almost 8 points per game last year.
The Cougars have been winning by playing good defense and making free throws. This is not a team the Trojans need to run off the three point line; WSU struggles to make contested threes, and the Trojans need stay with the shooters on the perimeter.
What The Trojans Need To Do To Win
The Trojans want to lean on their two four year seniors, Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews, in this first road conference game. Both have played a lot of minutes at Friel Court.
The defensive strategy for this game is simple – limit Elleby’s shots and production. The rest of the Cougars probably can’t beat the Trojans if Elleby doesn’t have a big game. It is likely Elijah Weaver and Daniel Utomi will have the defensive assignment most of the night.
The rest of the game plan will likely be the usual – get the ball to Onyeka Okongwu and Nick inside as much as possible to exploit their size and skill advantage; limit turnovers, which were a problem against FGCU; control the boards, which they did not do without Big O last Sunday; and convert their open shot opportunities from the perimeter.
The Trojans should get off to a good start in conference play with a win in Pullman. And a win in this game is important. The NCAA has been using the NET ranking formula as a major tool in selecting the tournament field the last few years. SC’s NET is a surprisingly low 72. (SC is ranked much higher in almost every other formula). They need to get that number into the low to mid 40’s. Major factors in the NET formula include how highly ranked are the teams SC beats, where the games are played, and to an extent, the margin of victory. The inverse is true for losses. So far, the Trojans do not have a “bad” loss. WSU’s NET is 127. While a road win in this game may not help the Trojans’ ranking a lot, a loss would definitely hurt. SC will have a lot of opportunities in conference play to get wins against more highly ranked teams, beginning on Sunday in Seattle against the Huskies. But first, the Trojans need to take care of business against the Cougs.
Cal currently has the lowest NET ranking in the PAC 12 at 183. Just ahead of the Bears is that team from across town at 179. Always nice to see the Bruins struggling.
Look Back At FGCU Win
The Trojans have fallen into two bad habits in their games this year – they often start slowly, and when they get leads, they can’t put teams away. Against good teams, either can be a significant problem. SC has not shown the killer instinct when they have second half leads. They have generally not been able to extend 6-8 point leads and win by 15-20. They did pull away from the Eagles to some extent last Sunday, and it never felt like the Trojans were in jeopardy of losing. But the Eagles are not a good team, and even without Troy’s best player, there was a huge talent difference and SC should have put the game out of reach much earlier. They will have a talent advantage again against Washington State, and we’ll see if the Trojans can start with more focus and maintain a high level of play throughout. They will need to play well for 40 minutes in some of the upcoming games.