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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Roster upgrades have Washington State, UW basketball teams on the rise in Pac-12

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The Washington State Cougars lost a slew of key players to the NBA draft or transfer portal this spring, with a shell of a roster left in their wake.

But good news finally appeared on the scene in Pullman – two pieces, in fact.

First, forward Mouhamed Gueye on Tuesday reversed course and returned to WSU after spending one month in the portal. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is a bit raw but one of the most physically gifted young big men in the conference.

Given standard year-over-year development, he should be an impact player next season on both ends.

Also on Tuesday, the Cougars bolstered their backcourt with the addition of Tennessee transfer Justin Powell, a rotation-level player whose career began two seasons ago at Auburn, where he shot 44% from 3-point range before a season-ending injury.

(Because the move to WSU is his second transfer, Powell’s eligibility in 2022-23 is not guaranteed. He must apply for a waiver from the NCAA.)

In our view, Gueye’s return solidifies the Cougars as a midlevel finisher in the conference race next season, along with the likes of Colorado and Stanford but behind the four favorites: UCLA, USC, Oregon and Arizona.

While the frontline looks solid, WSU seemingly lacks the backcourt skill and depth to push for a top-tier spot – at least now.

Coach Kyle Smith likely isn’t finished tinkering with his perimeter unit after losing top scorers Michael Flowers, Tyrell Roberts and Noah Williams.

Good news also arrived for the Washington Huskies.

The Huskies snared one of the top transfers on the market this week with a commitment from Keion Brooks,

A former five-star recruit who spent two seasons at Kentucky, Brooks might emerge as Terrell Brown Jr. 2.0.

(Or would that make him Terrell Brown Jr. Jr.?)

If you’ll recall, Brown saved Washington’s season – and perhaps coach Mike Hopkins’ job – when he scored 22 points per game in 2021-22 after arriving from Arizona.

Brooks could have a similar impact, elevating an otherwise flawed roster to a respectable level and prolonging the Hopkins era.

The 6-7 forward was a double-digit scorer for Kentucky and led the Wildcats with 27 points in their midseason blowout of eventual national champion Kansas.

Combine Brooks’ arrival with those of center Franck Kepnang (from Oregon) and wing Noah Williams (from WSU), and the Huskies have rebuilt their front line through the portal.

If the backcourt play is merely average – and that’s hardly guaranteed given the current roster – Washington should hold its ground in the middle of the conference.

Escaping that purgatory will be a next-level challenge, however.