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Healthy backcourt has been key to three-game win streak for Washington State

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 17, 2019

Washington State guard Jaylen Shead  draws a charging call against New Mexico State during the second half Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, at the Spokane Arena. WSU won 63-54. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State guard Jaylen Shead draws a charging call against New Mexico State during the second half Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, at the Spokane Arena. WSU won 63-54. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – There’s a correlation between the three-game winning streak Washington State carries into its next home test against Florida A&M, and the clean bill of health that’s finally been afforded to the Cougars’ backcourt.

Four of the six guards who’ve played in Kyle Smith’s rotation have encountered some type of injury or ailment through the first two months of the new season. Therefore, it felt like relative stability when the first-year Washington State coach could divvy up his minutes to five players on Sunday in a 70-56 win over UC Riverside.

Even better, Smith finally has all six at his disposal during the Cougars’ practices, which can be more important than games for a new program trying to build habits, gain experience and nail down substitution patterns.

Before beating Riverside, the Cougars took down New Mexico State in Spokane and beat Idaho in Moscow, allowing an average of just 58.3 points in those three games.

“I think, like I said (Sunday), (guard is) a pretty important position where we’ve been spotty on availability,” Smith said Tuesday during a weekly news conference. “And one of your best abilities is availability.”

Freshman point guard Ryan Rapp has dealt with nagging injuries dating back to the preseason and has just two games under his belt. Starting point guard Jaylen Shead has had “three incidents,” according to Smith, rolling an ankle and injuring his hip, but was only forced to miss one game. Another starting guard, Isaac Bonton, missed one game with what Smith called a “bug,” and freshman Noah Williams missed three games because of injury.

Marvin Cannon and Jervae Robinson have been the only guards to play in all 10 games, although Robinson hasn’t been at 100 percent in a few of those.

“We’re really thin back there,” Smith said. “They really kick-start what you’re doing offensively, so we’ve got to get more time on the practice floor.”

The Cougars had Shead, Bonton, Williams, Cannon and Robinson available in each of the last two games – all five playing no fewer than 18 minutes in a 14-point win over the Highlanders.

Smith’s backcourt will have another chance to iron out things Thursday when WSU (6-4) plays host to Florida A&M (0-8) at 7:30 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks.

The Rattlers may be the most-traveled team in college basketball, having played all eight games on the road, including three in Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic. Florida A&M, which won’t have a home game until Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play starts, also traveled to USC, Seton Hall, Kansas State, Tennessee and most recently Portland.

“Just know they’ve had a ridiculously tough schedule. It’s kind of unfair,” Smith said. “They play with purpose on the offensive end and try to get the ball inside. Again, we’ll have to be good defensively.”

If nothing else, Florida A&M could be a handful in the paint, perhaps offering an early glimpse of the size and strength the Cougars should see in the Pac-12. They’re led in scoring (10 ppg) and rebounding (5.9 rpg) by 6-foot-8, 300-pound Evins Desir, a redshirt senior from Haiti, and the Rattlers carry three other players who stand 6-8 or taller.

“There’s always someone offering something for us to get better at,” Smith said. “They do a lot of screen and cross stuff. I know, just kind of glancing at the Pac-12, there’s quite a few teams that have big bodies up front, and especially the first two home games (against USC and UCLA) we’re going to see some of that. So there’s always opportunity to get better there.”

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