PULLMAN – After dipping into Pac-12 play and splitting a pair of games last week, an optimistic Washington State men’s basketball team opens the final stretch of its nonconference slate with two tests against high-level midmajor opponents.
The Cougars (6-2) host Weber State (8-0) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Beasley Coliseum before meeting South Dakota State (8-2) at noon Saturday in the first of WSU’s two Spokane Arena contests of 2021.
“Just looking forward to a really challenging week for our program,” coach Kyle Smith said Tuesday during his weekly news conference.
WSU came in at No. 61 in the first installment of the NCAA’s net rankings, released Monday. Although Weber State has only defeated one top-200 team in the respected KenPom.com rankings, the Wildcats sit at 46th in the net.
Weber State is well-rounded statistically. It ranks 18th nationally in field-goal percentage (49.7%) and forces 18 turnovers per game – the team is No. 17 nationally in turnover margin. The Wildcats, predicted to finish second in the Big Sky Conference, enjoy the kind of perimeter length usually reserved for power conference programs.
“They’ve got some older, mature bodies,” Smith said. “They’re put together. The thing that jumps out at you is they’re tall across the board. They’re 6-3 to 6-7 on the perimeter. … I think it’s the second-best team we’ve played.
“Had I known all this, I don’t know if they’d be on the schedule,” Smith laughed. “No, it’s a good game for us, a really good game for us.”
WSU broke down on defense during a late Southern Cal possession Saturday and the No. 16 Trojans – seventh in the net rankings – slipped past the Cougars 63-61 in Pullman. WSU guard Noah Williams missed a 3-point try at the horn.
Three days prior, the Cougars were historically effective on defense in a 51-29 rout of Arizona State, a team which upset Oregon last week.
The Sun Devils’ 29 points marked the fewest allowed by a Cougars team in a conference game. WSU was coming off a 76-71 loss to heavy underdog Eastern Washington.
“We haven’t been consistent in anything really yet,” Smith said. “We’re trying to get it all put together. I think our minute distribution is pretty good. … Now it’s about maintaining our identity.
“We’ve gotten off to some good starts and just hadn’t been able to defend a full 40 minutes, except obviously Arizona State. And we defended SC pretty well, too. And they’re a good team. That’s nice to see, that we’ve had four good halves of defense.”
Smith confirmed he has settled on a group of 10 players among which he’ll spread the minutes. Freshman guard Jefferson Koulibaly and sophomore forward Andrej Jakimovski are splitting time as the last two off the bench.
“We’re pretty solid on the top guys that are playing … how they’re going to contribute, how it’s going to fit,” Smith said. “It’s game to game a little bit – (depending on) matchups. SC had size, so we played bigger.”
Guard TJ Bamba missed about a week of practice while recovering from a jaw injury sustained versus Winthrop on Nov. 22, but he returned to form against USC and has emerged as a reliable perimeter defender . True freshman post Mouhamed Gueye is also becoming a force on that end.
“Bamba and Mouhamed have probably been our two best defenders,” Smith said. “(Forward DJ) Rodman has been pretty steady there, too.”
With Williams, Bamba and Rodman manning the arc, the Cougars pose a considerable challenge for opposing ball-handlers and sharp-shooters.
Summit League favorite South Dakota State thrives on perimeter offense, topping the nation in 3-point percentage (45.17%). SDSU is fourth in Division I in made 3-pointers, 24th in 3s attempted and fifth in overall FG percentage (51.8%).
After a rough outing defending the 3-ball against Winthrop, WSU has apparently righted the ship in that department. The Cougars held USC and ASU to a combined 5 of 38 from long range.
The run-and-gun Jackrabbits – No. 76 on KenPom.com – seem to have forsaken their defense for offense. SDSU is the No. 14 most-productive scoring team in college basketball (91.1 points per game), but it ranks 298th in scoring defense, permitting 75.1 ppg. On KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, the Jackrabbits are 222th nationally.
Starting Cougar guard Tyrell Roberts and center Dishon Jackson sustained minor injuries last week, but Smith said they “should be fine” for Wednesday’s game. Freshman guard Myles Rice wasn’t suited up for the USC game as he recovers from an unspecified injury. Smith indicated the plan is to redshirt the Georgia native this season.
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