Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
WSU Men's Basketball

‘Hopefully we’re back on track’: Having cleared COVID-19 protocols, Washington State heads to the mountains

Washington State guard Tyrell Roberts controls the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Southern California, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – While looking ahead to his team’s upcoming trip, Washington State coach Kyle Smith said the word “hopefully” a number of times.

Nine Pacific-12 Conference men’s basketball programs, including WSU, have had a brush with COVID-19 early this season. As of Wednesday morning, more than 60 NCAA Division I teams are reportedly on pause because of the pandemic.

“It’s stressful for everybody,” Smith said Tuesday during his weekly news conference.

A new wave of the virus has instituted a daily guessing game in the college basketball world. Contests are being pushed back and called off – sometimes mere hours before tipoff.

That’s why Smith is crossing his fingers.

“Looking forward to hopefully playing this week,” he said. “We’ll head out there and hopefully get these two games in.”

The Cougars (8-5 overall, 1-1 Pac-12), fresh off a coronavirus-related break, look to claim rare wins in the mountains when they visit conference foes Colorado and Utah.

WSU is scheduled to meet the Buffaloes (9-3, 1-1) at 6 p.m. Thursday in Boulder and the Utes (8-6, 1-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday in Salt Lake City.

The Cougars have been sidelined since Dec. 22, when they lost to Boise State 58-52 at the Spokane Arena. They were forced to postpone an Apple Cup matchup with Washington on Dec. 29 in Pullman.

“The disappointing part, and there’s just nothing you can do about it, is we really had two guys that had symptoms,” Smith said. “But the whole testing (process), people got swept up in it. I think that’s par for everyone (around the country) right now.”

The third-year coach expects WSU’s roster to be “close” to full health during the two-game trip. “If anything,” he said, the Cougars will be without one player. He didn’t specify who might be absent.

Smith’s primary concern is the lack of practice time for “some guys” who – because of COVID-19 protocols – have only participated in a session or two since the Cougars’ most recent game.

“It’s kind of a reboot in general,” Smith said. “You really can’t add new stuff (to the game plan) or work on stuff like late-game situations.

“It’s unfortunate because we thought, with vaccinations, we’d be kinda bulletproof from these types of pauses and having to reset the clock.”

The Cougars closed the nonconference segment of their schedule having dropped three of their past four games.

They’ll need to surprise a few top-flight Pac-12 opponents and avoid any more big letdowns if they still have aims of contending for an NCAA Tournament bid.

They’re itching to get back on schedule.

“COVID, plus winter, plus practices – it wears on them,” Smith said of his players. “We’re a little isolated. All teams are when other students aren’t here, so it’s unfortunate. It’d be nice to be playing games and getting better. Hopefully, we’re on track and we don’t have any more setbacks.”

WSU has a resume-boosting opportunity against the Buffaloes, who haven’t played since Dec. 18 because of COVID-19 issues. The Cougs are 0-10 all-time in Boulder and they haven’t won in Salt Lake City since 1946 – WSU is 4-27 in its series against Utah.

“You have to just focus and try to tune that stuff out,” Smith said. “There’s definitely an advantage to playing at altitude. That’s documented.

“At the same time,” Smith noted, Colorado finished last season at No. 8 nationally on Ken Pomeroy’s widely respected rankings. “They’re just a good team and playing at home, so it’s hard to beat them.”

CU’s roster this season is less experienced than in years past, but the Buffs have shown a veteran attitude in close games. They own two overtime wins and defeated three other opponents by nine points combined.

The Buffaloes rank 36th in “luck,” a KenPom metric that measures the difference between actual performance and expected performance. In short, teams that consistently pull through in tight games are considered “lucky.”

The Cougars rank 347th out of 358 Division I programs in that category.

WSU has lost five games by a combined 19 points.

“We need one of those close ones just to get our confidence in a better spot, whether it’s getting a good shot late or getting a stop,” Smith said. “You gotta make your own breaks.

“If you’re a half-empty guy, you’re going to dwell in the misery of losing close games. If you’re a half-full guy, you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re close. We could have won every game we’ve played in.’”

Smith lands somewhere in the middle. He quoted former NFL coach Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.

“We’re going to have to make our luck,” Smith said.

Smith’s last two teams in Pullman were defined by defense, and this one is no different. The Cougars are a top-40 defensive team in the country, per KenPom. They have limited opponents to 65 points or fewer in nine games.

On offense, a few bad habits are weighing WSU down. Extended scoring droughts have plagued the Cougars. They aren’t getting much production from their frontcourt and they often settle for contested 3s.

No Pac-12 team has made or attempted more 3-pointers this season than WSU (116 of 337), which ranks seventh in the league in percentage (34.4). None of the Cougs’ three promising big men – Efe Abogidi, Mouhamed Gueye and Dishon Jackson – is averaging a double-figure scoring output.

“We’re good defensively. We’re a good offensive rebounding team,” Smith said. “Shot selection and ball-handling are areas we need to improve in, then we need to do a much better job on defensive rebounding, which is disappointing in the sense that we’re usually pretty good there and we’ve had some slippage.”

Stat book update

Senior guard Michael Flowers, a sharpshooting South Alabama transfer, paces WSU with 13.8 points and 2.8 assists per game. He’s been one of the team’s most efficient players, too, shooting 43.3% from the field and 40.4% from 3-point range. Flowers made multiple 3-pointers in each of the past 10 games.

The Cougs are waiting for one of their other backcourt starters to shake free from a shooting funk. Newcomer Tyrell Roberts is coming off a 5-for-16 effort against Boise State, but was held under 10 points in five straight games prior, a stretch in which he shot 6 of 38.

Noah Williams, the team’s top returning scorer this seasonr, shot 13 of 52 for 41 points over the past four games.

Sophomore forward Andrej Jakimovski began to exhibit more aggression in his playing style last month. He finished tough drives inside to pour in 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting – while collecting 17 rebounds – across thepast two games.