PULLMAN – At this point of the college basketball season, teams should be refining what they’re doing rather than re-evaluating it.
Washington State would much rather be doing the former under first-year coach Kyle Smith, but a spate of injuries – rather, another spate of injuries – has forced the Cougars to focus on the latter.
Heading into their fifth Pac-12 Conference game and 18th game overall, the Cougars are not necessarily overhauling their identity, but reworking it, with a roster that’s much smaller than the one Smith initially took into his first season at WSU.
“That’s what I told our team is, we kind of have to reassess who we are,” Smith said. “We definitely, we’re a slower team, to be honest. We were quick and really able to extend defensively, pressure-wise. You could play a lot harder, we’ve got depth.”
A trip to the Bay Area brought the Cougars bad news beyond the two losses they suffered, 73-66 at Cal on Thursday, and 88-62 at Stanford on Saturday, to drop their overall record to 10-6 and Pac-12 mark to 1-3.
Point guard Jaylen Shead, who’d been on a minutes restriction due to a nagging hip injury, gave the Cougars 12 minutes at Cal, but didn’t play at Stanford and missed his fifth game of the season. Smith didn’t have a conclusive report on Shead when he spoke to the media Tuesday, but the coach said it’s unlikely the Texas State transfer will play again this season.
“I don’t know yet. I can’t tell you for sure,” Smith said. “But mentally, I’m kind of moving that direction until we get more resolved. But he’s given a great effort. That hip is bothering him quite a bit, where he can’t help it. He’s one of those guys where he’s not going to take himself out.”
Shead was one of the two Division I transfers Smith brought in, coming to Pullman fairly late in the offseason when Ahmed Ali transferred. The Pflugerville, Texas, native was expected to step into WSU’s starting point guard spot and make an immediate impact after helping lead the Bobcats to 24 wins the previous season.
Smith brought in forward Deion James to fill a similar void on a young WSU team, but the Colorado State graduate transfer saw his season end well before Shead’s. James was diagnosed with a rare heart infection during WSU’s trip to the Cayman Islands after passing out in a game against Nebraska, and was ruled out for the season. James reported from his Twitter account Sunday his surgery was successful.
Guard Marvin Cannon continues to recover from an ankle injury. While Smith indicated Cannon could return in “three, four weeks,” the Cougars will be into the back half of their conference schedule by the time the junior is back.
Forward Tony Miller, who jump-started WSU in a loss to USC and win over UCLA two weeks ago, was limited against Cal and didn’t log any minutes against Stanford, prompting Smith to bring little-used forward Daron Henson into the rotation.
“We had a good, solid nine guys, and the personality of that team with no Jaylen, Marvin, Tony,” Smith said. “Tony makes you quick. We were just quick, and we were generating offense off our defense. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t affect us.
“Getting back to really reining in our defense a little bit, try to be just more – we’ve got to be less risk-averse on that side of the ball and get back to where we can get some stops. Probably won’t turn people over as much, and have to really concentrate on keeping them in front, and hopefully defensive rebound.”
Smith anticipates WSU will use a smaller lineup this week – potentially just seven or eight players – against Oregon (14-3, 3-1) and Oregon State (12-4, 2-2). The rotation would presumably include guards Jervae Robinson, Isaac Bonton, Noah Williams and Ryan Rapp, along with forwards CJ Elleby, Jeff Pollard, Jaz Kunc and some combination of Henson, DJ Rodman and Volodymyr Markovetskyy.
“I know we have some young bodies that can’t even really play 30 minutes a game, but you’re looking at seven guys going into, what is it, 200 minutes?” Smith said.
“Everyone would have to average, like, 30 minutes a game. That’s a challenge. But it’s hard to play nine, 10 guys, so we’ll try to figure it out, but it’s challenging with all the injuries.”
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