PULLMAN – Kyle Smith summed up his offseason so far.
“One word: tricky,” Washington State’s men’s basketball coach said Friday.
The Cougars wrapped up their best season in a decade March 29, when they bowed out of the NIT Tournament in the semifinal round in New York with a loss to Texas A&M. Over the five weeks that followed, the NCAA transfer portal depleted much of WSU’s roster, claiming four regulars in the team’s lineup.
“It’s been tricky because, obviously, with the portal and NIL (name, image and likeness deals), it’s kind of changed college basketball as we know it,” Smith said.
“Really, since Day 1, we’ve been trying to manage our roster and learn how to do this.”
WSU’s staff is navigating a chaotic offseason, looking for immediate-impact signees and new depth while holding out hope that somebody in the portal decides to return to Pullman.
“I’m OK with the portal and I understand it,” Smith said. “We’re trying to figure it out, but you have to kinda re-recruit your team. You gotta figure out the path moving forward, then you got the next class coming in, too.
“So, it’s been busier than we’d like, but it’ll all work out. I don’t think any coach prefers it, but a lot of coaches are in the same boat as us.”
The Cougars entered the month of April with optimism surrounding their program, but the positive vibe faded quickly as the portal sliced into the team’s core. WSU desperately “needed a win in recruiting,” Smith said, and secured a major victory last week, landing a top-50 prospect (ESPN) in the nation in four-star 7-footer Adrame Diongue.
That certainly provided some relief for a WSU fan base that had been justifiably concerned about the Cougars’ frontcourt. Standout big men Mouhamed Gueye and Efe Abogidi are testing the NBA draft while exploring potentially lucrative transfer opportunities.
“It’s tricky, because you want to keep as much continuity as possible and we have some very talented guys that are checking into some things,” Smith said. “We’re still holding room for those guys if we can.”
Asked which players in the portal are most likely to come back to WSU, Smith named Gueye and Abogidi but cautioned, “I don’t know if I’d say (it’s a) strong” possibility that either returns.
“Right now, they’re just chugging down the NBA lane and seeing what feedback they get,” the fourth-year boss added. “They’ve got a circle of people working through that. We’re in constant contact and we’ll see how it goes.
“They have more options in free agency, if you will. As a coach, we kinda have the same options, too, so I get it. We’ll just have to adjust. Adrame helps offset that.”
The Cougars are “close” to picking up commitments from multiple players who Smith expects will “keep us on the same trajectory.” They are targeting a couple of prep prospects and a few experienced transfers and plan to sign a guard or two within the next week. WSU’s 22-win breakthrough season and NIT run – and overall, the program’s year-to-year progress under Smith – should help with quick talent acquisition.
“You’d like to get some older, more mature guys,” Smith said. “I tell everyone that there’s still the same number of players (available). It’s just the pecking order has changed with NIL.
“But we were a top-50 program and on the rise. We’ve got the same staff and we can still attract the right pieces to keep this thing going.”
Smith’s message to WSU supporters: “Keep the faith. We’ll get guys who want to be here. It’ll settle.”
The Cougars will build around a base consisting of four key returners, each of whom has significant starting experience.
Guard TJ Bamba emerged as the Cougars’ most effective perimeter defender last year and eventually replaced Noah Williams in the starting five.
“He’s got an awesome attitude. He’s a great worker,” Smith said of Bamba, a third-year sophomore. “He probably will be our captain next year.”
Williams, a Seattle native, transferred to Washington last month in search of a bounce-back after a down year in his third season at WSU.
“We were kinda bottled up at that spot, and one of them needed room to grow,” Smith said. “I can understand it.”
Veteran DJ Rodman and third-year wing Andrej Jakimovski have been reliable contributors for Smith, who noted that “our best plus/minus last year was oftentimes when we had Rodman and Andrej on the floor at the forward spots.”
“I feel good about our perimeter.”
Center Dishon Jackson, at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, gives the Cougars a strong presence in the post and will be back for his third year at WSU. Jackson and Diongue both play at the “5” spot, so Smith is aiming to recruit “another guy who could be a ‘4’ or ‘5.’ ”
Smith also sees high potential in freshman Myles Rice, who redshirted last season after signing with WSU as a top-50 point guard in the class of 2021, per several recruiting outlets.
“Myles is a good talent and he’ll be ready to go,” Smith said. “It’s a good nucleus. We gotta fill it in, but I feel really good about those guys. They’ve embraced it. They’re proud to be here and they’ll do well.”
The Cougars’ leading scorer last year, guard Michael Flowers, has graduated. WSU’s No. 2 scorer last season, guard Tyrell Roberts, made an unexpected move last week and decided to enter the portal as a grad transfer after one season in crimson and gray.
With his only two double-figure scorers from 2021-22 out the door, Smith figures WSU will share the offensive load next season. He pointed to Bamba, Jackson, Rice and Jakimovski as possible leaders on that end.
“We’ll probably move the ball a little better and we’ll have to play some of our parts a little better,” he said. “There’s not an elite, 20-points-per-game guy. Probably not even a 15-points-per-game guy, but we’ll have some guys that can make plays and we should be OK.”
Reserve point guard Ryan Rapp, seeking increased playing time, transferred to Hawaii recently and “left on good terms,” Smith said. Backup guard Jefferson Koulibaly, who wasn’t with the team for the back half of the season, has also left WSU.
Smith talks new players
Two 2023 recruits have signed on with the Cougars in Diongue and guard Dylan Darling, a WSU legacy from Spokane who stuffed stat sheets while starring for Central Valley High.
WSU received an oral commitment in the fall from Solomon Ominu, a 7-footer from Nigeria, but he is expected to reclassify and join WSU in 2023 because of an issue with his visa, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Diongue, a product of elite hoops academy Arizona Compass Prep, will play a substantial role for the Cougars next season but will need time to adapt to power-conference physical play.
“He might have to play earlier than we’d hoped, but he’s excited for the opportunity,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to handle him accordingly. Right now, he’s 198 pounds, and that’s going to be hard to play a lot of minutes in this league at that weight. He’s going to have to get stronger.”
Diongue and Gueye, both of whom hail from the Dakar region of Senegal, are friends. That relationship and “the fact that Mo (Gueye) and Efe did so well” helped lure Diongue to WSU, Smith said.
In Diongue, the Cougars are getting a “runner, a lob guy, shot-blocker and rebounder,” Smith said.
“He’s kinda like if you cross Mo and Efe. He’s about the same size as Mo. He’s just a center, but he’s easy to play with. He’s gotta develop his scoring, but he’s … good on pick-and-rolls and he has a good sense. He’ll throw a back-door pass. His strength is his defensive rebounding.”
Darling, the reigning player of the year in Class 4A, is the son of WSU football great James Darling, a linebacker who played 10 seasons in the NFL.
“He’s coming here for the right reasons,” Smith said of the 6-2 Dylan Darling, who averaged 33.2 ppg at CV last year. “He knows the fight song. You gotta have some anchors. He’s beyond an anchor – he’s a root. He was born into it.”
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