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MBB Preview: Washington State

Former USF coach Kyle Smith brings the new look Cougs to Berkeley for a battle of rebuilding programs

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Gonzaga
A vision of an alternate Cal basketball universe?
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

We’re at Game 2 of the 18 game long Pac-12 grind, and we have already reached the one and only game that Cal is currently projected as a favorite.

That’s right, it’s Washington State, the program that has been Cal’s partner in misery over the last two seasons. The Cougars jettisoned Ernie Kent, though they let him last for a frankly shocking 5 seasons of mostly last place basketball before finally moving on. They quickly grabbed USF coach Kyle Smith, who was mentioned by various outlets as a potential Cal target. I can’t say I was personally keen on the idea at the time, but Smith has his chance in the Pac-12 regardless.

The Bears, of course, hired Mark Fox. But since WSU and Cal hired in the same year, coming from a similar rock bottom situation, the success or failure of both hires will inevitably get compared. That process, fair or not, starts tonight.



G Isaac Bonton - High usage point guard who takes the most shots on the team and probably shouldn’t - shooting splits of 35% from 2 and 28% from 3 don’t make for efficient scoring.
G Jervae Robinson - Shooting guard who can’t really shoot (splits: 35/24)
W CJ Elleby - WSU’s best player by a wide margin. Rebounder, ball thief, can create his own shot, going through an odd 3 point shooting slump (29%) after canning 41% last year.
F Aljaz Kunc - Slovenian stretch 4 who shoots more 3s than 2s, hasn’t been a great shooter but does have rock bottom turnover rate.
F Jeff Pollard - Savvy vet and ultra efficient interior finisher with good hands

Key Bench Players

Jaylen Shead - Texas St. grad transfer has been a very turnover prone point guard, but is a useful disruptive defender.
Noah Williams - Back up shooting guard who can’t realy shoot (splits: 38/27)
Tony Miller - Back up undersized forward has a nose for offensive rebounds/put back opportunities.

Injury note: Point guard Jaylen Shead missed three games with a foot injury before returnin to play 6 minutes against UCLA, while guard Marvin Cannon is not expected to play. Otherwise WSU appears to be largely healthy.

You might notice a theme to the player blurbs above: Nobody on Washington State can shoot the ball. Washington State is 328th in the nation in 3 point shooting percentage, and the best shooter on the roster with any volume of actual attempts is shooting 32%. Theoretically Cal should make a point to not let Elleby shoot, as he did a good job of it last year, but nobody else on the roster has demonstrated shooting skills thus far and Wazzu is getting results to match.

This is a mildly amusing roster for Kyle Smith to inherit. Wazzu’s new coach is ostensibly analytically minded, and most of his previous teams shot lots of threes. Needless to say, with his current roster, he’s dialed that back a little bit. But it’s hard to run a functional modern offense without shooting, and running an offense that can’t space the floor means that the Cougars aren’t a ton better on shots inside the arc (47%, 259th in the nation).

Smith has made up for offensive limitations by pretty quickly returning WSU to defensive respectability after years of utterly incapable Ernie Kent defenses. Nobody is going to mistake this WSU team for an elite defense, but taking a team that was 284th in adjusted defensive efficiency last year all the way up to 103rd is pretty damned impressive.

How? By limited shot attempts, particularly from 3. Washington State forces lots of turnovers and doesn’t give up 2nd chance opportunities, and they cover the 3 point line well. Elleby in particular is a disruptive wing defender who will likely be tasked with stopping Matt Bradley.

Keys to the Game

  1. Elleby vs. Bradley

Cal and WSU have lots in common beyond the ‘trying to recover from historic program collapses.’ Both teams struggle to score points, and rely on dynamic wings who can create their own offense with their shooting and driving ability. As mentioned above, it’s even likely that both players will be guarding each other for portions of the night. Whichever team gets a good night from their best player (or can get the other team’s key man out of rhythm) will have a big leg up in the battle.

2. Keep the turnover deficit to a minimum

Washington State has one of the lowest turnover percentages in the nation while forcing a high number on defense. They’re going to win that particular battle. The question whether Cal turns the ball over 7 more times than Wazzu, or 15 more times. If it’s the latter, Cal’s better shooting should make up for those missed opportunities. But Cal doesn’t shoot the ball so well that they can overcome a massive turnover deficit.

3. Point of attack defense

WSU pretty much has one way of creating offense - getting their guards and wings (primarily Elleby) moving downhill so that they can either finish at the basket or dish to Pollard for a finish around an out of position defense. If you can cut off their drives then they’re left trying to find open Js for a bunch of players who can’t shoot Js. If there was ever a game for Cal to finally play 40 minutes of strong point of attack defense, now would be the time.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Cal 68, Washington St. 67, 51% chance of a Cal win

I started this column by noting that this is the only game Cal is a projected favorite to win in conference play. That doesn’t mean that you should start worrying about 0-18. There’s roughly a 1% chance of that, and that percentage won’t change much if Cal loses to Wazzu. But if your hope for this season was that the Bears would show some level of improvement or step forward from the previous two seasons, maybe more conference games . . . well, a win in this game would probably be included in that win total in a hypothetical 5 or 6 win Pac-12 season.