PULLMAN – Ready or not, Washington State’s season is resuming.
The Cougars have cleared COVID-19 protocols and will host Utah on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
WSU hasn’t played since Jan. 15 and only conducted a couple of standard practice sessions – in which at least seven scholarship players were available – during its weeklong pause.
Coach Kyle Smith hopes his team isn’t too affected by its lack of prep time.
“Long break for us, but not really an opportunity to improve on things,” he said Tuesday.
“There’s no handbook on how to do it, so I don’t know what to expect Wednesday (versus Utah). I just know we’re coming off a long layoff and that can be tricky.”
The Cougars (10-7, 3-3 Pac-12) are “pretty much free and clear” of coronavirus-related issues, save one unspecified player who was still in the protocol as of Tuesday morning, Smith noted. The team’s roster is nearing full strength, but will be without center Dishon Jackson for likely another two weeks because of an eye injury.
WSU announced Jan. 18 that the virus had infiltrated the program. Last week’s road games against the Oregon schools were postponed, and several players were knocked out of all team activities for extended stretches. At one point, only four Cougars had the green light to participate in individual exercises.
“There’s not much you can do,” Smith said. “Early on (during the pause), we had to go one to a basket. We were just doing a lot of shooting and conditioning a little bit – basically 60-minute workouts where they’re getting a lot of cardio, and then get in the weight room and just try to bide our time.”
Most of the players who’d been sidelined by the virus had returned to the fold by Sunday.
“Some guys missed seven, eight, nine days,” Smith said. “I think one guy missed 11 days.”
The optimist in Smith says the Cougars might be rejuvenated after so much time off. But he acknowledged concerns about his players’ stamina and durability.
“I think conditioning would be No. 1,” Smith said when asked about the primary challenges of competing in a game coming off an idle week. “And physicality. Basketball’s a physical, contact game. … There’s contact on every possession that you gotta get used to.”
WSU will have to get tough underneath if Utah (8-12, 1-9) has its standout big man. Branden Carlson, a junior 7-footer, missed the Utes’ previous five games – the first a 77-61 loss to WSU on Jan. 8 in Salt Lake City – but there’s “definitely a chance” he returns from an appendix injury and plays Wednesday, according to Utah coach Craig Smith.
“They’re going to be more motivated with the ball inside when he plays,” Kyle Smith said. “Their other centers are solid … but he’s a difference maker. His ability to protect the rim is imposing.”
WSU attacked the paint on pick-and-roll plays earlier this season against Utah to fashion an advantage in its second victory of all time in Salt Lake.
“We caught a break obviously, with Carlson being out, and we played with purpose,” Smith said.
The Utes come to Pullman seeking to snap an eight-game skid. They’re coming off losses to the Los Angeles schools.
Utah has played in three games since WSU’s most recent appearance, a 65-57 win over Cal.
The Cougars will also entertain Colorado on Sunday at 7 p.m.
The Buffaloes, who tipped WSU 83-78 on Jan. 6 behind strong efforts in the frontcourt, play two games before then.
The Cougars have three Pac-12 contests to make up: a home matchup with Washington and the road games in Oregon. WSU’s program was forced to push back its in-state rivalry game on Dec. 29, about 12 hours before tipoff, due to COVID-19 protocols in its program.
Smith isn’t sure whether the Cougars will play all three.
“I heard there’s a rumor that it’s going to be hard to get them in,” he said. “Our league office does a great job with it. … It seems like that one week with Washington (a Feb. 26 away game), we could probably squeeze two in there: the home game with Washington and maybe make one of the trips over to Oregon, then up to Seattle.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.