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THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: It's early, but these Cougars don't look too shabby

| December 23, 2020 1:30 AM

Hey, the Cougs can shoot.

Who knew?

OK, I’m kidding a little bit, but Washington State’s young and fascinating bunch did start the season as though they’d need to lead the nation in defensive efficiency just to win a few games.

Second-year boss Kyle Smith has proven he can turn almost anyone into a serious defender, so it seemed that would be Wazzu’s calling card.

Maybe the ONLY calling card, because…

Through four games, the Cougs gave the impression that they couldn’t shoot the ball into the Grand Canyon — not even if they were standing at the rim.

Yet they won all four, by giving up 55, 68, 52 and 58 points.

Included in that little stretch was a 59-55 Pac-12 opening victory over Oregon State.

Oh, and in all four of those games, the Cougars trailed at halftime because their offense was, well…

Offensive, in that other sense of the word.

BUT THEN came a transformation.

Almost like Clark Kent hopping into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, Washington State (7-0 for the first time since 2007-08) became a different team.

The Cougs had an efficient second half to dust off Portland State 69-60, and went on to find another gear entirely.

Soph guard Noah Williams has grown into the scorer the staff suspected he’d become.

Nigerian freshman Efe Abogidi — foul-prone and unsure through the first few games — suddenly unleashed his all-court athleticism.

The 6-10 Abogidi has had double-doubles in the Cougs’ two latest wins, over Montana State (82-54) and Prairie View A&M (90-62).

He’s also delivered a string of leap-to-the-ceiling blocks that would immediately remind you of former Gonzaga star Brandon Clarke.

What’s more, Abogidi is one of five regular rotation players who are now shooting 39 percent or above from behind the 3-point line.

Efe is hitting long ones at 55.6 percent, Williams checks in at 52.4, Jaz Kunc 41.7, freshman guard T.J. Bamba 40, and 6-8 swingman Andrej Jakimovski 39.4.

Ironically, senior leader Isaac Bonton has been a bit chilly from outside at just 26.3 percent — but it hasn’t mattered.

The difference from those early games?

The Cougs are now comfortable with each other, they’re playing in rhythm and spreading the floor to open up those 3-balls, along with setting up post entries to Abogidi and 7-foot-1 Ukrainian Volodymyr Markovetskyy.

IT’S TOO soon to call the Cougs a Pac-12 contender, or go overboard with season targets.

The schedule has been pretty soft, and as Smith is quick to point out, a Covid cancellation at Colorado means that the Cougs have not played a road game.

Still…

There’s talent in Pullman.

Wazzu also has become a fun team to watch, even if those excellent defensive numbers suggest a slow pace.

The Cougs, though, aren’t walking the ball up the floor.

Not at all.

They’re becoming quicker and more instinctive on offense, ball movement seems to improve by the game — as you’d expect from such a young team — and they’re playing with a lot of enthusiasm.

WSU has one more nonconference game, today against a Northwestern State team that will be exhausted after facing Gonzaga both Monday and Tuesday nights, and then the weekly tests begin in the Pac-12.

Obviously, the Cougs will be facing more size and talent in the conference, but just as they learned on the job through four clunky games and then some nifty performances, it’s not absurd to say these guys will be competitive against their peers.

I’ll go a little further and say extremely competitive.

The only downer?

Without the coronavirus, crowds would be finding their way back into Beasley Coliseum to see these guys.

But that’s coming, sooner rather than later.

Whenever fans can return…

They’ll be entertained.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is normally published each Tuesday – but this week will run on Thursday.

photo

PETE CASTER/Lewiston Tribune via AP Washington State center Efe Abogidi (0) dunks the ball as Montana State forward Abdul Mohamed (0) defends in a Dec. 18 game in Pullman.