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John Blanchette: Kyle Smith’s new-look Cougars send clear message to fans, foes in season-opening romp

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 8, 2019

PULLMAN – Here’s the second-best thing about Washington State’s artsy new basketball hardwood:

If CJ Elleby decides to let fly with a 3-pointer a step or so past the famed WSU logo at midcourt, Matt Chazanow can gush to the Cougar radio audience that he “just threw one in from the Tri-Cities bridge.” Because it’s painted on the floor on that very spot. Nifty, huh?

And the best thing about the new court?

There’s a new team playing on it.

Playing actual basketball at both ends. Guarding and everything. With a … what do they call those again?

Oh, right. A plan.

This is perhaps the only takeaway that matters from the launch of Kyle Smith’s good ship Coug, which certainly deserved a champagne toast after Wazzu blitzed the Seattle Redhawks 85-54 at Friel Court on Thursday night – giving the new head coach not only his first Cougar win but a rare emotion.

“They totally surprised me,” he admitted.

You think he’s shocked? How do you suppose the school’s hibernating hoops caucus feels?

Surely they were hoping for something a little more allegro after the dirge that provided the soundtrack to the Ernie Kent era, but they hardly could have imagined themselves heading off to work whistling come morning.

OK, maybe some pumping of the breaks is in order.

It’s one game, against an opponent that got punched in the mouth at the opening bell and never punched back.

“We always play lousy here,” Seattle coach Jim Hayford fretted beforehand, thinking not only of a beating two seasons ago but a couple when he was at Eastern Washington earlier in the decade – and hoping for better.

Well, they played lousy again, but the Cougs had much to do with it.

It started with Jeff Pollard stuffing Seattle’s Delante Jones on the game’s first possession. By the first TV timeout, Wazzu had managed to force three turnovers, sling in three 3s – by three players – and storm to a 16-4 lead. And for the most part, the Cougars never let up.

With 10 minutes to go, a goodly portion of the students – who made up most of the audience of 2,810 – bailed with the Cougars up 28. That happened during the Kent tenure, too, except never because they were ahead by 28.

Indeed, it may be recalled that a year ago, the Cougs lost to Seattle – and Montana State and San Diego and Santa Clara and New Mexico State twice in what was supposed to be the confidence-building part of the schedule.

Maybe one of the many unlikelies on this year’s slate catches the Cougs napping, too, but not six times.

Not now that they seem to give a damn on defense which, as advertised, has been Smith’s driving focus here in the foundational phase. On top of that, the Cougars took care of the ball (just three turnovers) and rebounded, well, effectively anyway – all the elements of Smith’s DIRT sloganeering.

What’s the “I” stand for? Maybe interesting.

Among the new parts in this basketball overhaul, Smith has brought in a couple of transfer guards in Isaac Bonton and Jaylen Shead with some siccum and skill. And freshman Noah Williams, son of WSU great Guy, will be a fun project to track.

But wherever the Cougs go, it’s going to be Elleby taking them there. The points won’t always come as easily as his 27 did this night, but Smith seems to be cool with letting him try.

“He just thinks the ball is going in and that’s 95 percent of the battle,” Smith said. “As a coach, it makes you feel good that he’s going to let loose.”

If that makes it sound as if transitions like these are seamless, they’re not. Elleby’s one of just five holdovers, and the one with the biggest burden.

“I’ve had this where you inherit a team and the leading scorer and they have the hardest things to go through,” said Smith, whose rebuilds at Columbia and San Francisco earned him this chance.

“I can remember the night I got up here and there were nine of them, or eight of them, and I said, ‘Look, I’m not running anyone off. I’m here for Washington State. All you have to do is have a great attitude and a great work ethic and really want to be here.’ ”

Elleby sniffed around about turning pro and then made his way back.

“I love the culture here and we’re kind of changing it,” Elleby said. “This is just the start.”

And, of course, the bigger tests come later. But this was an eyebrows-up, by any measure.

“You just don’t know what to expect,” Smith said. “Early in the season, scores can go either way. You see Davenport – I’ve never even heard of Davenport – beat Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon has good players. Syracuse scores 34 last night – against that team (Virginia), I wouldn’t want to play them, either. Weird things happen.”

If this is an example, maybe it’s best to make weird the plan.

Note: This story was updated to reflect that it is the Tri-Cities bridge painted on Friel Court, not the Vantage bridge.

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