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‘We’ll have a lot of new faces’: Washington State basketball opens anticipated season with newcomers in lineup, fans in stands

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 8, 2021

Washington State coach Kyle Smith greets forward Andrej Jakimovski (23) and guard Noah Williams (24) during a Pac-12 game in February against Cal in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
Washington State coach Kyle Smith greets forward Andrej Jakimovski (23) and guard Noah Williams (24) during a Pac-12 game in February against Cal in Pullman. (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s men’s basketball team will feature three newcomers in its starting lineup. And its arena will feature fans again.

The Cougs tip off their anticipated third season under coach Kyle Smith at noon Tuesday in Beasley Coliseum against nonconference foe Alcorn State.

“We’ll have a lot of new faces – a little nervy, I’d imagine,” Smith said Monday during his weekly news conference.

The general public hadn’t been allowed inside the venue since February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic emerged.

“It’s very much a transition game, a noon tipoff on a Tuesday,” Smith said with a chuckle. “We’re transitioning slowly. I don’t know how many people we’ll have there.

“It’ll be nice to coach … without a mask. It was hard to communicate with your team.”

The game also marks the official return of college basketball – it’s the first regular-season matchup in the country between Division I clubs.

WSU plans to send out three guards in its starting five, including two transfers in Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers. Smith expects the pair to bolster WSU’s scoring capacities and provide a boost to the Cougs’ ball-handling.

Roberts opted out of the 2020 season after earning Division II All-America honors for UC San Diego the year prior. Flowers ranked among the country’s most prolific scorers last season at South Alabama.

Standout junior Noah Williams will play on the wing but shift to the backcourt when D.J. Rodman enters off the bench.

Ball-handling responsibilities will be shared between the three combo guards, but Smith tabbed Roberts as WSU’s point man to start.

Making his collegiate debut and starting at forward will be touted 6-foot-11 freshman Mouhamed Gueye, WSU’s No. 3-rated recruit of the past two decades, according to 247Sports. Sophomore center Dishon Jackson returns to his post underneath.

High-flying sophomore Efe Abogidi’s minutes will likely be limited to around 20, Smith said, because the promising forward from Nigeria has been rehabbing a knee injury for much of the offseason. Forward Andrej Jakimovski is coming off an unspecified injury that kept him off the court for most of the preseason.

WSU staged just six practices ahead of the season in which every player was available.

“Guys are getting healthier,” Smith said. “I think Efe’s probably at 75%. Andrej missed about six months, so that’s going to affect us a little bit as we move forward.

“We’re still getting the new guards in and trying to get the older guys comfortable. The young ones are talented. We’ll see how it shakes out.”

Everyone will be on hand for WSU’s opener, said Smith, who noted last month that he’ll probably rotate 10 Cougars early this year as the team searches for a stable lineup.

WSU went 7-0 against nonconference competition in 2020, and this year’s nonleague slate is a favorable one.

Alcorn State, an HBCU program from Mississippi, went 6-13 last season and finished ranked 342nd in Division I by KenPom.com. A bright spot for the Braves was their turnover-forcing abilities.

“We’ll see a lot of pressure from these guys,” Smith said. “Alcorn will present some problems because they’ll jump in front of you, take charges. They’ll play the ball, they’ll blitz you.

“It’ll challenge our weaknesses. We were a poor ball-handling team – that kept us from being a lot better. Short-term goals: Can we get in there and take care of the ball?”

Six newcomers are predicted to contribute for a WSU squad that lost its leading scorer from last year in Isaac Bonton, who’s now playing pro ball overseas.

Yet the Cougars, coming off their first winning season in nine years, have been pegged by college hoops pundits to turn heads in 2021 behind a lengthy, athletic corps of high-ceiling talent.

For Smith, the first few games of the year will be about jelling and “keep(ing) things a little simple.”

“Let’s make sure we’re doing our normal stuff: defend, rebound and take care of the ball,” he said. “We’ve gotta do a better job of taking care of the ball this year, but we have new pieces out there, so you can be a little skittish.”

WSU continues its opening week at 7 p.m. Friday with a home game against Seattle U.

Tickets for WSU’s Spokane games on sale Wednesday

Tickets to WSU’s neutral-site games at Spokane Arena will be made available online at ticketswest.com, starting Wednesday at 10 a.m.

The Cougars play South Dakota State at noon Dec. 11 and square off against Boise State at 5 p.m. on Dec. 22 as part of the Numerica Hooptown USA Holiday Series.

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