New head coach new defensive system

Cougars have won more games this season than in 2018-2019

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ABIGAIL LINNENKOHL | DAILY EVERGREEN FILE

Smith’s system stresses defense, something that last year’s team was not known for. Last year, they allowed 78.7 points per game.

CODY SCHOELER, Evergreen sports columnist

The WSU men’s basketball team has looked like a completely different team than it did last year. It is not because of the shiny new court or because of the five returning players, although that certainly does have an impact.

The reason is head coach Kyle Smith and his new brand of basketball he has brought to Pullman.

The Cougars are playing much different in Smith’s “nerdball” system. There were not high expectations for this team, but the players have already exceeded them. Last year they won 11 games; they have already surpassed that number this year.

But what is actually different with this team? Something else must have changed other than the head coach. He is not out on the court making plays; he is on the sideline calling them.

For a change like this to take place it must come from the players. They have to embrace this new style of play and change the way that basketball is being played in Beasley Coliseum. That is exactly what they have done.

Smith’s system stresses defense, something that last year’s team was not known for. Last year, they allowed 78.7 points per game. There were 330 teams in the NCAA that allowed fewer points per game than the Cougars. There were 22 teams that allowed more points.

This season the Cougars have dropped that number to 67.9 points per game, 148th best in the nation. The most points they have allowed in a game this year is 88 in a loss to Stanford. Last year they allowed their opponents to hit that mark eight times.

A big reason for their improvement on defense is turnovers, something they are a lot better at forcing than last year. They are averaging 15.7 turnovers forced per game up from 12.3 last year.

Sophomore forward CJ Elleby has been a big reason for that improvement. He leads the team with 1.6 steals per game up from one a year ago.

“Most guys make a jump first to second year, but I think he’s just really coachable,” Smith said. “He’s really a sponge . . . he’s a smart player. It takes time, but he just keeps growing and getting better.”

Senior guard Jervae Robinson has also made an improvement upping his steals per game from 0.4 to 0.9. The team has also gotten contributions from new players. Junior guard Isaac Bonton is averaging a steal a game, and freshman guard Noah Williams is averaging 0.7 steals.

The Cougars have also improved their turnovers on offense. Last year they averaged 13.7 turnovers per game, 214th in the country. They have taken better care of the ball this year lowering their turnovers per game to 11.3, 28th in the nation.

“It’s definitely one of the things that’s a high priority,” Smith said. “One of the worst things you can do is a live ball turnover in practice. Hopefully that gets their attention, and it usually creates good habits.”

Elleby has again been a big part of that change. He has reduced his turnovers from three a game last year to two a game this year. Bonton leads the team with 2.6 turnovers per game but that mark would have been third on the team a year ago.

One reason for the Cougars’ defensive improvements may be the lower level of competition. In the 2018-2019 season, WSU finished 89th in ESPN’s strength of schedule ranking. This season they are currently ranked 145th.

The defensive numbers are not just due to the easier schedule. The Cougars have played better defense in conference games this year, and the Pac-12 is a much more competitive conference.

There are currently four Pac-12 teams in the top 20 of the NCAA men’s basketball NET rankings. The conference has another five teams in the top 100 and an average ranking of 62.75.

WSU let conference opponents score an average of 80.2 points per game last year. This season they have held conference foes to 73.5 points per contest. They also rank first in the Pac-12 in forcing turnovers and fourth in steals per game.

Additional reporting done by Ryan Root.