PULLMAN – Michael Flowers is finding a new niche as a floor general. Tyrell Roberts is finding his stroke.
Washington State’s transfer guards seem to be settling in. As they grow comfortable, the Cougars become a more stable group.
“We’re still a somewhat fragile team in the sense that we’re sorting things out a little bit because we’ve got two new guards,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said during his weekly news conference Tuesday. “They’ve done a good job, but there are hurdles they have to go through.”
WSU (9-6, 2-2 Pac-12) entertains its conference foes from the Bay Area this week, starting with a 2 p.m. tipoff Thursday at Beasley Coliseum against Stanford. The Cougars host Cal at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Flowers and Roberts dazzled in stretches during WSU’s road split last week against the Pac-12’s Mountain schools. Flowers totaled 19 points and doled out 11 assists while Roberts scored 42 points combined in the Cougars’ tight loss to Colorado and breakaway win over Utah.
Flowers, a 6-foot-1 senior from the Detroit metro, registered 21 points per game last season at South Alabama and finished the season fourth among all Division I players in total scoring.
He leads the Cougars (9-6, 2-2 Pac-12) in scoring this year at 13.3 points per game. Flowers is hitting a solid 41.6% of his attempts from the floor. He launches about seven 3s per game, but he’s not so much a shoot-first guard anymore.
Flowers has established himself as WSU’s point man, according to Smith.
“He’s running the team, and I think that’s helped us,” Smith said. “It probably takes away a little bit of his efficiency and his scoring, but his ball-handling and play-making is making us better. As that keeps coming, hopefully we’ll be better in close games and have a little better understanding of one another.”
Although he’d still probably be Smith’s first option to take a last-second shot with the game on the line, Flowers has emerged as the Cougars’ best distributor.
He has finished with five or more assists in six of his 15 games at WSU and paces the team with 3.1 assists per game. Flowers’ passing production has seen an uptick over the past month. Thirty of his 47 assists have come in the past seven games.
When asked which of his players has developed most from the start of the season to now – in terms of on-court effectiveness and maturity – Smith singled out Flowers.
“Without a doubt, and it’s odd. I didn’t expect this,” Smith said. “We knew he came in as a scorer … but he’s much more than that and he keeps growing.
“He’s really become a better defender. He’s taken on the job of being our top passer. He’s good in the pick-and-roll. If he can keep doing that, giving up some of his game for others, that’s going to make us the best we can be I think.”
WSU was beset by lengthy scoring droughts in each of its losses. But if Roberts continues to produce like he has lately, he’ll shoot the Cougars out of some offensive slumps.
A former Division II All-American at UC San Diego, Roberts averaged 19.3 points over the past three games on 41% from the field. He hit 11 of 29 on 3-pointers, a handful from NBA range, and often slashed through lanes for nifty layups.
Across the five games prior, Roberts managed 16 points and shot 15.8%. He logged five double-digit scoring efforts in his first six games as a Cougar, but had a setback last month. He spent the first half of December battling a nasty case of the flu.
Otherwise, he’s progressing well. Roberts opted out of the 2020-21 season at UC San Diego after racking up over 1,000 points in two seasons. Smith didn’t expect him to light up Pac-12 scoreboards right away.
“He had a layoff, almost like a junior college player in the sense that when they transfer … it usually takes some time,” Smith said of the 5-11 junior, who’s averaging 11.3 ppg on 34% from the field. “He was definitely really ill. He was sick, and he has high expectations for himself.”
So when his shots weren’t falling last month, Roberts was hard on himself.
Smith pulled the Sacramento, California, native aside and reminded him that WSU is a better team when he’s in the lineup. Roberts improves the Cougars’ perimeter defense and seldom turns the ball over.
“Look, you’re doing well. Our plus/minus when you’re on the floor is good,” the coach said, recalling his chat with Roberts. “You haven’t shot the ball as well as you can, and that’s just gravy. If you shoot it well, we might be able to really separate from people.
“He doesn’t know. He’s used to winning every game. They went 30-1 at his last spot and he shot the ball really well. … He played with that kind of verve (in recent games) that we expect. Hopefully, he’s got something going in that direction.”
Sizing up the competition
In WSU’s last series against the Bay Area programs, guard Noah Williams turned in a historic weekend, scoring 72 points – the most by a Cougar player in a weekend series – on 55 shot attempts in a sweep of Stanford and Cal.
“Knowing Noah, he’s probably perked up,” Smith said.
Williams (12.6 ppg) missed WSU’s game against CU because of COVID-19 protocols, but helped the Cougars close out Utah with timely late buckets and sound defense.
That was an important result for the confidence of a team that came into its game in Salt Lake City having lost four of its past five games, stumbling down the stretch in each defeat.
“That was big for our program and for our guys,” Smith said. “We didn’t play that poorly at Colorado, considering we were without Noah.”
The Cougars are as healthy as they’ve been all season as they prepare to welcome Stanford (9-4, 2-1), which made national headlines Tuesday when it handed the fifth-ranked USC Trojans their first loss of the season. The Cardinal were coming off a three-week pause due to COVID-19 issues.
The No. 78 team in the country (per KenPom.com), Stanford has won five of its past six after an uneven start.
The Cardinal rank 18th nationally in rebounding margin, but sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 rankings with 15.1 turnovers per game.
“Their talent lies in their frontcourt,” Smith said. “They’re really big and one of the best rebounding teams in the country, so the flip side of that is usually your ball-handling might be exposed a little bit.”
Five-star freshman Harrison Ingram, a 6-7 ball-handling forward, tops the Cardinal at 12.8 ppg. Four other players average seven or more points. Several towering players man the Stanford interior.
Cal’s frontcourt is similarly strong. The Bears (9-8, 2-4) are led underneath by a pair of athletic 6-9 forwards in the 255-pound Andre Kelly (15 ppg, 8.6 rebounds) and 230-pound Grant Anticevich (11.9 ppg, 7.6 rebounds).
Cal won seven of eight games before dropping two well-matched contests last week against the Los Angeles schools – the Pac-12’s two highest-ranked outfits.
“They’re playing like a top-50 program,” Smith said of Cal.
The Cougars will likely give center Dishon Jackson a heavier workload this week. Jackson (6-10, 235) has played more than 15 minutes just once in the past five games. WSU’s been trading out Jackson’s floor time recently with a combination of multifaceted forward Andrej Jakimovski and veteran workhorse DJ Rodman.
“It’s matchups,” Smith said. “We need Dishon in a big way this weekend.”
Smith is also pleased with the trajectory of another sophomore big man in Efe Abogidi, who “had a really good weekend” in the mountains. Abogidi scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting and totaled 15 rebounds. He’s among the most efficient shooters in the nation inside the arc at 69%.
“It’s his conditioning, his health. He’s able to play more minutes,” Smith said of Abogidi, who averages 7.6 points and 5.3 boards per game.
“He’s become a much better offensive player.”