WSU bows out of the NIT: Quick thoughts

Not the ending we hoped for!

Good morning. Go Cougs!

Unlike last year, there will be no deep run by the men in the NIT, as WSU got bounced out of the tournament at home last night by Eastern Washington. It was a game that was equal parts understandable and confounding, ending a season that featured an extreme low, an extreme high, and a whole lot of frustration in between.

We’ll have more time to look back on the season as a whole in the future, but here are some quick thoughts about the game.

Before I get rolling with my own analysis, I’m sure you already have your own thoughts. We’d love to hear them!

NO MO … BIG PROBLEM! Well, I guess we finally found out where the limit was to our injury problems this year! Mouhamed Gueye couldn’t play last night after aggravating a back injury on that monster dunk at UW. Yes, he played against Cal and Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament, but from what I’ve been told, it’s something that’s gotten progressively worse as the season has gone on. That he played against the Bears and Ducks should be an indicator of his toughness, and any suggestion that he sat out last night to protect himself, bowl-game style, is inaccurate.

Without their go-to player, the Cougs looked lost on offense for huge swaths of the game, and they struggled all night to defend and rebound. And that makes sense: The offense is literally built around him. He’s one of one on this roster, a 6-foot-11, 210-pound unicorn. And when you take that guy out of the lineup — and also consider that it left the team with approximately 0.1 scholarship big men1 for this game — there are going to be significant problems.

After watching Dishon Jackson and Myles Rice go down before the season started … Andrej Jakimovski miss the first six weeks … Jabe Mullins miss three weeks … Mael Hamon-Crespin quit after nine games and go back to France … sickness take out DJ Rodman and others for a weekend in Los Angeles … Adrame Diongue suffer a hand injury a month ago just as he was starting to develop into a useful piece …

Losing Mo was just one thing too many, I guess.

I TRIED TO TELL YOU: I know only a few hundred of you read this newsletter, but I tried to warn everyone that this wasn’t the same team that WSU flattened back in November in Spokane. You saw that plainly, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from being extremely mad online that we have lost to Eastern Washington in Pullman in consecutive seasons.

On the one hand, I understand the response. WSU should beat Eastern. And they very likely would have if they could have made a few more free throws and/or made a few more layups (although this ignores that Eastern also missed its share of layups).

But man … there were some very extenuating circumstances in this particular game! And the Eagles definitely don’t suck! Steele Venters, who went for 27 points, will have his pick of a number of high majors this offseason if he decides to transfer2. The same probably goes for Casey Jones. On the heels of the Groves brothers, Eastern has done an unbelievable job at finding and developing undervalued prospects in Washington3, which is a really great way for a midmajor to do business.

And they’re really well coached. Like most mid-majors, they have their limitations and their holes, but they’re long on the perimeter, and, as we saw, they can really shoot. That’s a pretty good recipe for being successful in the Big Sky and giving yourself a puncher’s chance against a high major, since you’re rarely going to be able to recruit guys who can match up for size and athleticism on the interior.

Over the course of the season, the Eagles improved from a low of 243 in kenpom after falling to 2-5 (all away from home) to a high of 111 after winning 18 straight. You almost never see that kind of rise in one season, and for comparison, that’s about where Washington finished its season (108). No high major would aspire to be as bad as Mike Hopkins’ sinking ship on Montlake4, but for a Big Sky school, that’s damn good. And I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if we had lost at least one of the games to the Huskies without Mo.

To that end, I don’t think the anger/frustration would have been at the level it was at after the game if it wasn’t Eastern that had beaten us. There’s a certain (understandable) provincial nature to the matchup, and I think the reaction isn’t the same if we lose to, say, Southern Mississippi or UC Irvine or Youngstown State, all of whom are roughly the same quality as Eastern and also in the NIT.

NO, EWU DID NOT “WANT IT MORE”: This is the part where I get extremely annoyed with convenient narratives. Sure, the Eagles were clearly motivated — as you would expect in a revenge game! — and it showed in their defensive intensity early on.

But … isn’t that sort of a chicken/egg situation? The Cougs are much, MUCH easier to defend without Mo, right? Additionally, we typically rebound about a third of our own misses, and Gueye is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. It’s actually a big part of our offense! Last night, we only grabbed 22%. Those kinds of things will make it look like one team wants it more.

I’d simply ask this: Did EWU “want it more” when WSU was on a 17-2 run to erase a nine-point halftime deficit?

Did EWU “want it more” as the squads battled down the stretch with 20+ lead changes?

Yes? No?

If you want to be irate about the final two errors that sealed the game — first, Venters’ wide-open 3, later, the failure to box out Venters on his missed free throw with nobody else in the lane — I won’t argue with you. The free throw rebound was totally inexcusable and should happen zero out of 100 times in that situation. But even if you are inclined to ascribe that to effort (I’m not), it certainly wasn’t indicative of the overall effort level; heck, even Venters’ three wasn’t an effort issue, it was a “who are you guarding????” issue on Rodman. He blew an assignment. Very dumb! But not effort, as Kyle Smith’s described after the game. Via Cougfan:

“We played with our heads cut off with a nine-point lead,” Smith said on the postgame radio show. “Gave it away in like a minute. It was embarrassing as a coach. It happened all year, ain't going to happen anymore. I'm going to go rip some tail in that locker room. You can't give games away. We're shorthanded and they're a good team, but we were just dumb. There's no other way to put it. We made mental errors and we have to be tougher than that if we're going to get over the hump.”

Personally, I think it was probably a tired body/tired mind situation. Once again, WSU’s five starters all logged 30+ minutes, with TJ Bamba, Justin Powell and Rodman logging 37, 38, and 39 minutes. I also understand why Smith won’t make that excuse for them and why he’s choosing to use this as a tone-setter for the offseason.

NOW WE HOLD OUR BREATH: It’s portal season. Hold onto your butts.

I’m predicting that we actually end up seeing very little turnover this season, relative to past seasons. There probably will be at least one departure that we didn’t see coming, because that’s just how it usually works these days. But I thiiiiiink the majority of the core remains intact — the roster is a pretty good mix of guys who should be pretty happy with the role they already have and guys whose roles should naturally increase as they develop. The only guy on the roster who seems to fit all the normal criteria for a transfer is Carlos Rosario.

The big question, of course, is Mo. My completely uninformed, no-inside-knowledge guess is that it’s 50-50 that he turns pro — and I thought that before this injury. I’m not sure how this affects it, but I’m assuming he’ll go through the draft workout process again before making a final decision by the NCAA’s withdrawal deadline of 11:59 p.m. on May 31.

By the way, I’ve only gotten a couple of questions for the subscriber-only mailbag so far. If you’ve got one to add, hit the link below — I’ll do it if I get at least a couple of more questions.

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