About Last Night: Cougs smash Utah, add to NCAA resume

Isaac Jones leads five in double figures.

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The Washington State Cougars rebounded from their toughest loss of the season to pick up their second-most-important win of the season, beating the Utah Utes 79-57 at Beasley Coliseum last night.

With the win, the Cougs improved to 14-6 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-12 — and, maybe most importantly, soared to 47 in NET while picking up what should (by season’s end, anyway) be a Quad 1 victory for the NCAA tournament resume.

The game was tight and back-and-forth early, as both teams were on point. But the Cougs opened up a small, six-point lead about halfway through the first half that they never would relinquish. They more or less maintained that cushion up until the last couple of minutes of the first half, when they looked poised to extend their lead to double digits heading into the break after Utah star Branden Carlson went to the bench with two fouls. But a series of poor decisions on offense allowed the Utes to go on a spurt of their own, closing the gap to just three at halftime with a 6-0 run.

The bad vibes did not carry over into the second half. On WSU’s first two possessions, Oscar Cluff hit a shot in the post and Jaylen Wells hit a 3 to push the lead right back out to 8. Utah — down its top two point guards because of injury — continued to battle, largely behind WSU nemesis Gabe Madsen, who had seven points early in the second half. The Cougs felt in control, but Utah was hanging around.

With the Utes struggling to stop the Cougs defensively, they switched to a junky 1-3-1 zone. Isaiah Watts hit a 3 out of it, then promptly hit another 3 on the next possession, igniting a 19-4 run over seven minutes that stretched the lead to 16 with 3:25 to go and finally put the game to bed.

In A Minute

  • CougCenter recap

  • Stats

  • Line o’ the night: Isaac Jones with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals

  • One stat to tell the tale: The Cougs owned the glass, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds — 42% of their misses. It led to a 21-4 advantage in second-chance points.

Highlights

Tourney Check

The season, as it turns out, did not actually end with the loss to Cal!

Three Thoughts

1. We are SO back (again)

This is the danger in putting too much weight onto a singular bad loss — you often can come right back and post an equally impressive win to make up for it and flip the script back in your favor.

The meltdown against Cal was awful. And there’s no denying that it stings and hurts WSU’s chances to make the NCAAs. But there is still quite a ways to go, and when it comes down to selection Sunday, a (probable*) Quad 1 win over Utah is going to be worth a lot more than a (probable) Quad 2 loss is going to hurt you.

Always remember: Everyone on the bubble has flaws. They’ll all have some dumb losses. The best way to separate yourself is with good wins, and WSU now has two of them over teams that will be seeded in the top half of the field. The next chance is on Saturday, when Colorado (No. 26 NET) visits Beasley.

*I say “probable” because WSU’s 22-point victory knocked Utah down to 31 in NET, just out of Quad 1 range for a home game, but I expect Utah will do enough to get back in the top 30. Cal, meanwhile, is just outside Quad 2, and I also expect them to do enough to get into that range.

2. Back to Big Basics

Broadcasters love to talk about how big the Cougs are. And it’s absolutely true: they are 2nd in kenpom’s “average height” metric which weights for actual minutes played. And yet, WSU had gone seven games without cracking 30% offensive rebounding, and grabbed only 14% of their misses against Cal. For context, last year’s team averaged 31% in Pac-12 play.

So it was refreshing to see WSU get after it on the offensive glass, because shot volume — simply taking more shots than your opponent by reducing turnovers and grabbing offensive boards — is a hell of a weapon.

Consider: The Cougs shot the ball just a little better in this one than they did against Cal, turned the ball over just a little less than they did against Cal, and got to the line a bit more than they did against Cal. But with the spike in offensive rebounding, WSU improved its points per possession from 1.03 against the Golden Bears to 1.25 against the Utes.

It was the most points per possession given up by Utah this season — by a pretty wide margin.

3. Big Rueb is on a shot-blocking heater

Last night, Rueben Chinyelu registered three blocks in just 13 minutes. That’s a lot of blocks in a very short amount of time! In those 13 minutes, Utah took approximately* 12 shots inside the arc. Let’s appreciate, for a moment, exactly what that means.

Twenty five percent of the time Utah took a shot inside the arc — not at the rim, just inside in the arc — Rueben Chinyelu sent it back. 

One in four. That is mind-blowing. And it’s not really an anomaly!

Last night was the third time in four games Chinyelu had three, and in the other game he had two — while playing only 63 minutes. In those minutes opponents took approximately 55 2s. That translates to a 20% block rate on opponents’ 2s, which is totally bonkers, and has raised his block rate for the season to 11%. If he played enough minutes to qualify on kenpom’s rankings, that would rank him 13th nationally and 3rd in the Pac-12.

Chinyelu’s physical tools were immediately obvious the moment he stepped on the floor this year, but he was extremely raw. His movements on both offense and defense often looked tentative and awkward; while it was easy to see why the staff was enamored with his potential, it also was plainly obvious that he had a long way to go to be a consistent contributor.

I don’t think we’ve yet achieved consistent contributor status — he still commits too many fouls (6.9 per 40 minutes) to truly be dependable — he’s but he’s starting to exert his will on games, particularly on the defensive end.

*I say “approximately” because I ain’t counting up all the shots while he’s on the floor. I just do a little math with minutes and shots to figure out an approximation. That’s how kenpom does it over the season, too.

Up Next

Colorado comes to Pullman on Saturday, and the Cougs have another massive opportunity. While Utah came into this week with the more impressive resume of the mountain schools, it’s a decent bet that the surging Buffs will actually end up as the higher seeded team.

That’s because the Buffs ooze talent. Between shot maker extraordinaire KJ Simpson, five-star freshman Cody Williams (the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft), and Tristan da Silva, Colorado might actually have the most talented trio in the Pac-12.

And while the Cougs will lean on the fact that they nearly left Boulder with a win in the first matchup, neither Williams nor da Silva played in that one. This is going to be an entirely different challenge: The Buffs hung 98 on the Huskies last night in Seattle, and it was their fourth scoring option — J’Vonne Hadley — who led them with 24 points.

Tip-off is at 2 p.m. PST on Pac-12 Network.

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