PULLMAN – In the past two years, Washington State’s men’s basketball program ascended from the pits of obscurity. The Cougars pocketed some signature wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers, inked some promising recruits and got their fan base believing again.
It’s been a steady, encouraging climb for WSU under coach Kyle Smith.
All of a sudden, this team is attracting attention on a scale that hasn’t been seen in Pullman in a decade.
“We haven’t done anything yet, but a lot of people are telling us we’re good,” Smith said. “So, how do you deal with that potential success?
“I feel like our talent is there. But we say all the time: ‘Hard work will beat talent unless talent’s working hard.’ We’re working hard, but it’s a process.”
The Cougars enter Year 3 of the Smith era with outside expectations aplenty. Some pundits have called them a dark-horse contender for the Big Dance.
They’ll debut a deeper, bigger and more balanced lineup when they host Alcorn State at 1 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Beasley Coliseum.
WSU plans to be at full health for Game 1, and that hasn’t been the case leading up to the opener. Mild injuries have kept multiple players sidelined for stretches in the preseason.
Asked if WSU’s staff has settled on a starting lineup, Smith replied, “Not really.”
“We’ve been a little dinged up, but I think we’re finally getting some guys back on the floor playing together,” he said. “I feel we’re a little bit behind, but we’ve got a lot more options, a lot more depth.”
In the backcourt, the Cougars have some whittling to do.
WSU boasts seven capable guards, led by star junior Noah Williams, who Smith said missed some time recently.
The coach couldn’t confirm whether that stemmed from Williams’ incident last month at a Pullman bar. He is facing potential misdemeanor charges after allegedly getting in a scuffle with bouncers.
The Seattle product is practicing with the team and will be available for the opener. Williams, a defensive stalwart who added an impressive scoring touch last year, will likely be at the top of the scouting report for opposing teams.
“He’s getting stronger,” Smith said. “You can see his back has broadened out. He’s a pro athlete, for sure. … He just covers the court so well. He’s starting to mature physically and he’s growing up on the court, too.”
It’s uncertain who else will take the floor at guard.
Intriguing offseason additions include South Alabama transfer Michael Flowers and Tyrell Roberts, a former Division II All-American at UC San Diego.
Both will be key in WSU’s aims of limiting turnovers and improving its 3-point shooting – problem areas last season.
Freshmen Jefferson Koulibaly and Myles Rice will provide a defensive edge with their length at guard, and the Cougs are expecting significant contributions from well-built sophomore T.J. Bamba.
Together, they should fill the void left by the departure of standout point guard Isaac Bonton, who’s now playing professionally overseas.
“They’re all kinda combo guards,” Smith said. “Mike and Ty are the most experienced. Really good work ethic and good leaders, and I think either one of them with the ball in their hands, they’re going to make good decisions.”
Sophomore big men Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson are sure-fire starters down low. The athletic Abogidi broke out last season and Jackson came on as the campaign progressed, supplying WSU a physical interior presence.
Abogidi, who tried out for Nigeria’s Olympic team in the summer, is easing his way back to health after rehabbing a knee injury this preseason.
Smith predicts Jackson’s scoring capabilities will develop this season.
“I think we’ll be a little more balanced and hopefully a little more mature with a few more options to score,” Smith said.
Newcomer Mouhamed Gueye, one of the Cougs’ top all-time recruits, will rotate in the paint. At 6-foot-11, the Senegal native bolsters WSU’s rebounding and rim protection. Junior mainstay D.J. Rodman has proven himself reliable at forward and 6-foot-8 sophomore point-forward Andrej Jakimovski is a multifaceted play-maker.
WSU will probably send out 10 or 11 players in each game early this year and eventually trim that number.
“But we’re not there yet,” Smith said. “We can’t tell. We’re new.”
Fifteen Cougars played during a recent scrimmage against an experienced Montana team, which took two of three tightly contested periods from WSU.
“They return their top eight or nine guys, and they opened our eyes a little,” Smith said of the Grizzlies. “It felt like we were good defensively, where we need to be, but a lot of room for us to improve.”
The Cougs were a top-30 defensive outfit in the country last season as WSU fielded a winning team for the first time in nine years. In order to take another step, Smith is hammering home the mantra that’s been in place here since he arrived.
“Defend, rebound and take care of the ball,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t get better in each.”