Better-than-expected offense is driving Cougs' early season success

Getting to the rim -- and making your shots there -- does wonders for scoring!

Hello folks! No podcast this week — life got in the way for us. In lieu of that, I decided to do a little writing about men’s basketball. I hope you enjoy! If you do, please share it by clicking that little button below. Thanks!

WSU is off to a 5-1 start in men’s basketball, which isn’t totally unexpected, but also is pretty good — the Cougs have stubbed their toes early in the year against someone ranked in the kenpom.com1 200s or lower in three of Kyle Smith’s first four seasons, including Prairie View A&M a year ago and Eastern Washington two years ago.

Now, there are still opportunities for a flub, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But WSU’s 82-72 win over the Eagles on Monday meant that all five of their wins have been by double digits, offset by just one loss — to No. 28 Mississippi State (also by double digits). Because of that, the Cougs have risen 24 spots from kenpom’s preseason projection — from 84 to 60 in just a few weeks — which represents the seventh-biggest jump this year among teams that started in the top 100.2

It’s not at all surprising to me that the Cougs are outperforming their preseason projections; that’s what Kyle Smith does. What is really interesting is the manner in which they’ve achieved it: By hugely outperforming their offensive projections.

Smith’s offenses typically take a while to come around, but this one — with basically just one major piece (Andrej Jakimovski) back from last season — has hit the ground running: They’re already about 10 points per 100 possessions better than expected3. If this continues for the remainder of the season, WSU would finish with the highest-ranked offense of Smith’s 14-year career.4 

And they’re doing it in a way you never would have expected based off Smith’s history.

For four years, the Cougs have been one of the absolute worst teams in the country at converting 2-point attempts: They’ve ranked worse than 300 nationally in 2-point percentage every year, never exceeding 46.3%. It’s like the lane was some sort of weird kryptonite for his players.5 

But not this year! So far, the Cougs are converting a whopping 57.4% of their 2s, 26th nationally. They’re also taking more 2s than at any point under Smith, with about two-thirds of their attempts coming inside the arc. Compare that to just 55% of their shots a year ago, when they made up for their 2-point woes by being one of the most prolific 3-point shooting — and making — teams in the country.

This roster doesn’t have that same kind of shooting prowess, and Smith has proved adept at adapting his team’s style accordingly.

The vast majority of the philosophical shift has to do with the revamped frontcourt of Isaac Jones, Oscar Cluff, and Rueben Chinyelu. All three are newcomers to the team, and all three have dominated down low: Combined, they are shooting a whopping 65% from 2 (71-of-110).

However, it’s too simple to pin the team’s shift all on those guys. We thought, heading into the year, that the offense might flow through them, particularly Jones, a transfer from Idaho who was an absolute bucket there. But that hasn’t really been the case: Cluff and Jones — who are playing most of the frontcourt minutes — are each under 23% usage, certainly not “go-to guy” numbers6. Chinyelu’s usage is higher (25%), but his minutes are much lower, so that’s kind of a noisy stat with him. Mostly, the three of them have been opportunistic with their chances, many of which have come from second chances while dominating the offensive glass.

The thing that has taken this offense from being very good at making twos to elite at it is that some of WSU’s other players are actually making their layups!

At the front of that line is point guard Myles Rice. By now, you surely know about Rice’s backstory — redshirt as a freshman in 2021-2022, cancer diagnosis in 2022-2023. Having spent the last 2.5 calendar years not playing competitive hoops, Rice is showing no signs of rust whatsoever. He’s leading the team in usage (26%) and is second in the Pac-12 in offensive rating among players who are using at least 24% of their team’s possessions. He’s converting 57% of his twos, and after a scorching 6-of-8 performance from beyond the arc against EWU, he’s now making 46% of his 3s.

Rice’s combination of length (6-foot-3) and athleticism (he accelerates down the floor like a slot receiver coming off the line) is something WSU hasn’t had at the guard position under Smith. When he turns the corner and gets downhill against defenders, it’s pretty much over, and if the 3-point shot remains solid, Rice is an all-Pac-12 type of player who changes the calculus on the ceiling of this squad.

Meanwhile, Jakimovski — who has been head-scratchingly terrible inside the lane for three years (37% at the rim as a freshman, then 41% and 41%) — has suddenly become a pretty stellar finisher, making 57% this year, even as he is being more aggressive attacking the rim. And Kymany Houinsou, who is featuring in a bigger role than expected so far, is 10-of-15 at the rim.

The caveat to all this, of course, is that WSU has been doing this largely against overmatched opponents. The one like-for-like high major opponent they’ve faced — Mississippi State — held them to 47% on 2s and just 19% on the offensive glass. Outside of a strong start to the game, it was a pretty gross offensive performance.

However, I’m not yet sure how much to read into that: MSU is ranked as the No. 2 defense nationally by kenpom and they’ve held all their opponents to 42% on 2s. Additionally, while WSU’s offensive efficiency in that game was (by far) its lowest of the season, it was the second-highest against MSU this season, just a hair behind Georgia Tech, which just dealt the Bulldogs their first loss. In short, WSU’s offense fared better against MSU than just about everyone else who has played them. That would seem to be a good indicator rather than a bad one.

If, and this is a big if, this is really who the Cougs are on offense, their ceiling is higher than I thought. I don’t know if the ceiling is the NCAA tournament — the defense would need to come along quite a bit for that — but another NIT appearance isn’t off the table: kenpom now projects the Cougs to 19-12 overall and 10-10 in conference. That’s NIT material.

I realize another appearance in that tournament might not the most exciting thing in the world, but it would represent a level of consistency that the program hasn’t achieved since Tony Bennett was here. When you factor in the heavy losses that the program suffered — through no fault of Smith’s — that would be a damn fine outcome to this season.

And if the defense really *does* come around?

Maybe this is the season Smith shocks us all.

Join the conversation

or to participate.