We all know the story, Bill Moos was Athletic Director of the Washington State University Cougars. He made one of the more fun hires of college football in getting Mike Leach to be their new head coach, ran up the credit card bill trying to get the school on par facilities wise with the rest of the conference/country, generally ignored the basketball program while miring it in less than mediocrity, and then jumped ship to come lead our beloved Huskers with inspired hires of the football, basketball, and baseball programs while announcing a shiny new practice palace for football this fall. Well, his former school will now be facing our Huskers tonight in the Cayman Islands Classic. Craig Powers with Coug Center was gracious enough to sit down and answer a long list of questions I had for him to get us ready for the Bill Moos Caribbean Brawl tonight.
SpartyOnHuskers (AKA: Kevin): How much lingering anger does the fan base have for Bill Moos over his hiring of Ernie Kent as head coach during his tenure there? How excited are the Cougar fans for Kyle Smith?
Craig Powers with Coug Center: Ernie Kent was the laziest hire that Bill Moos could have possibly made. Kent had been out of coaching, and his last few years at Oregon were ugly. Still Moos gave him $1.4m/year for a guaranteed five years.
And that’s not the worst part. As you may know, Moos loves “rollover” contracts, meaning at the end of each year, the school has the option to essentially just renew the contract. He did that twice for Kent, for no real reason. That turned the original five-year deal into a seven-year deal.
Moos gave his buddy Ernie a $7m retirement gift. That certainly tarnished his legacy, and yeah there is still some lingering anger about that in part because the athletic department dug itself a pretty big hole under Moos (in fairness, hollow revenue promises from the conference leadership played a major role there).
Thankfully, WSU’s current athletic director Pat Chun didn’t feel the need to let Kent play out the contract for the sake of saving money. Then he went out a made the savviest of savvy hires.
We need something different at WSU. Our basketball facilities lag behind the rest of the conference. Smith brings that with his #NERDBALL philosophy and his commitment to defense. At our site, we have a lot of basketball data geeks so we are fired up.
I’m a big fan of process, and his is sound. The early season results have been a mixed bag, but I’m confident Smith has already made the program markedly better.
Kevin: WSU had an off-season not all that different from Nebraska in terms of roster turn-over. How has that shaped expectations for this first season under Kyle Smith?
Craig: Smith seems to have very specific ideas about the players that he wants to bring in, and he also is willing to look in regions and places that other programs don’t go. He’s already done that, and through the turnover the roster is improved over last season.
Given that, we expect to see WSU be more competitive as the season goes on (although the Pac-12 looks a lot better this year, so that might not result in more wins). Early hiccups like the Omaha game are probably to be expected, but he is still trying to nail down the rotation. I’m hoping three games and three days will help him figure out who can play.
Kevin: Perhap going out of order a tad, but who that hasn’t produced much on the stats sheet yet are you most excited for on the roster for this season?
Craig: Graduate transfer point guard Jaylen Shead has a rough start, and he has been injured so he might not play against Nebraska. However, he is good defensively and has playmaking ability. If he gets going, that will really help.
Outside of him, Ukrainian freshman center Volodymyr Markovetskyy is big and nimble. He is a 7-footer, but doesn’t look awkward. He can provide some size that the team desperately needs, and rim protection that will come in handy during league play. He’s been battling some injuries, but got some run against Omaha. I expect him to earn some more time as the season progresses.
Kevin: The Cougs sit at 155th in KenPom and 157th in adjusted defensive efficiency, so just inside the upper half of D1 basketball. What has been going wrong so far, particularly against Nebraska-Omaha Thursday night that has the team struggling?
Craig: When you consider where WSU was at defensively last season (284th in adjusted efficiency), sitting just inside the upper half so soon is a drastic improvement.
However, as you point out, that Omaha game was disappointing. The Cougs are doing well in defending the 3-point line, but the Mavericks shot well from deep. That wasn’t the key issue, it’s been the interior defense primarily that has struggled. Omaha shot 55 percent on 2s, that’s bad. The current rotation just isn’t that big and lacks a shot blocker. You can see why I’m excited for the 7-footer to get more minutes.
One more thing is that the Cougs had been strangely reliant on steals through the first three games. Those didn’t come against Omaha, and that left the interior exposed.
Kevin: CJ Elleby leads the team with 20 points a game thus far, and averages a team second best 5.7 boards. Who else should Husker fans be looking out for on Monday?
Craig: Isaac Bonton will take a lot of shots. His 3-point percentage is ugly right now, but they have started to fall. One issue is he forces a lot of shots off the dribble, and he is taking a lot of difficult 3s.
But he’ll also attack the rim, and he is a pretty creative finisher. If he gets hot, he could be trouble for y’all. If he is cold, that’s trouble for us.
Jeff Pollard will also see some back-to-the-basket opportunities and step out for a 3-pointer once in a while. Everyone else will shoot some 3s, but there hasn’t been another player consistently producing on offense.
Really though, if Elleby is off, the offense will struggle. Smith has focused primarily on fixing the defense so far, and hasn’t had time to install many sets. There’s a lot of hero ball (320th in assists/FGM).
Kevin: Smith is a defensive minded coach who likes to hit the defensive glass hard and limit two point shot attempts. What kind of challenges do you think a Hoiberg coached team presents in terms transition play/pace and with the offensive focus on three-point shooting?
Craig: The defense will work hard to chase shooters off the line, and will focus on getting back in lieu of crashing the offensive glass. That makes this a pretty interesting matchup against Hoiberg’s style.
As I mentioned before, the Cougs have relied on steals defensively. What worries me most is how well Nebraska takes care of the ball. In the two losses so far, Santa Clara and Omaha excelled when they avoided turnovers.
Kevin: What is one trait of Kyle Smith coached teams you are most excited about and one thing you wish he would give more focus to/coach differently.
Craig: This is a tough one. I have been a longtime lover of KenPom and all statistically-minded approaches. I love that he emphasizes limited 3-point attempts on defense and grabbing defensive rebounds.
I’d like if it the offense got a little attention right now, but I do know that he had a lot of work to make the defense even respectable. So, we’ll see if the offensive side will come around eventually.
Kevin: Where will WSU end up at the end of the year? Will they fare better than the 2-2 start so far during conference play?
Craig: I think they’ll improve, but I also think the rest of the Pac-12 has improved just the same. I think WSU ends up around the 130s on KenPom with 13 or 14 overall wins and 5 or 6 league wins. (there’s a lot of gimmes in the back half of the non-conference schedule).
Kevin: Final question, what will happen on Monday down in the Cayman Islands, and what will the final score be?
Craig: We’ll see less than 15 combined turnovers. The Cougs will dominate the defensive glass, and get a few extra opportunities on the offensive end. WSU hits a few 3s early, but goes on some long scoring droughts.
Nebraska finds its edge at the free throw line, and inside the arc. The Huskers shoot fewer 3s than usual, but find great success inside the arc.
The game stays fairly close throughout, only a couple possessions each direction. In the end, WSU’s offensive futility dooms it again and Nebraska wins 70-64.