PULLMAN – In March, the Washington State basketball team wrapped up its best season in a decade. The Cougars bowed out of the NIT in the semifinal round, but they left the court at Madison Square Garden with a promising outlook for the 2022-23 season.
At that point in time, it seemed like WSU would return the bulk of its roster and build upon its breakthrough 2021-22 campaign. Instead, the Cougars spent much of the offseason rebuilding.
Initially, there was concern among the WSU faithful. Four key players left the program in the spring, including senior point guard/captain Mike Flowers (graduation) and standout forward Efe Abogidi, who joined G-League Ignite.
Yet it wasn’t long before enthusiasm began to pick back up.
“It was tricky during the spring,” fourth-year Cougars coach Kyle Smith said recently. “I feel like we did well, as far as guys we brought in. I think the talent is going to be pretty good.”
WSU struck gold on the recruiting trail, plucking two talented guards out of the transfer portal and adding a few notable pieces from the prep ranks.
Star big man Mouhamed Gueye withdrew from the NBA draft pool and elected to return to WSU for his sophomore season. The Cougs also bring back proven contributors such as guard TJ Bamba, a team captain and defensive ace, and veteran wing Andrej Jakimovski.
“We always like to improve year over year,” Smith said. “I think we can. I think we’re capable. There is an expectation among themselves, and our leadership is good.”
The Cougs have made steady progress with each season under Smith. They tied for fifth in the Pac-12 standings last year and jumped into the top 50 in the KenPom.com national rankings. Pac-12 media members picked WSU to finish eighth in the conference this year. The Cougars enter the season at No. 77 on KenPom.com.
WSU will feature a new-look lineup and different strengths, but there’s plenty of reason to believe the Cougs will surpass those expectations.
“We’re a good shooting team, and we have a high-IQ team, too,” Bamba said. “We all make the right reads for each other. We play for each other. We don’t got any selfishness at all. That will take us a long way.”
WSU opens its season at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at home against Texas State.
The Cougars’ backcourt boasts intriguing potential. WSU signed a pair of 6-foot-6 transfer guards in Justin Powell (Tennessee) and Jabe Mullins (Saint Mary’s), both of whom will take on starting duties after playing reserve roles at their former schools.
“They’re really smart and they’re really skilled on both sides of the ball,” Smith said of the junior sharpshooters, who have appeared in a combined 93 collegiate games. “They come from really good, NCAA Tournament programs. They really make things easier.”
The two will pair nicely with the 6-5 Bamba to make up a lengthy WSU perimeter. The Cougars were undersized at the guard positions last year.
Smith expects his team’s offense to be more rhythmic and balanced than it was last season, when WSU posted low assist numbers and often relied on two or three high-volume scorers.
“Our ball-handling and passing will be better. Our shooting should be better,” he said. “In general, our ‘playing together’ on offense should be better.
“We’re going to be more sleek of an offensive team with a lot of interchangeable parts.”
Key backcourt reserves include versatile true freshman Kymany Houinsou, a 6-6 France native, and Dylan Darling, a dynamic freshman from Spokane.
Ball-handling and scoring responsibilities will be shared between several assist-minded guards. Smith shined a light on Bamba when asked to predict WSU’s leading scorer. Gueye also “will take a big step forward” on offense.
“Mo and Bamba, talent-wise, they’re in different roles now but I feel like they have put in the time and they have the respect of their teammates,” Smith said.
Gueye, a preseason first-team all-conference pick, will be a force underneath, but the Cougars’ frontcourt might be a work in progress. Starting center Dishon Jackson announced Sept. 26 that he’ll be sidelined indefinitely due to an unspecified medical issue.
WSU will space the floor, starting Jakimovski at the “4” position. WSU is planning to ease true freshman Adrame Diongue into the lineup. The four-star 7-footer is one of WSU’s highest-rated recruits of all time, but he’ll need some time to develop.
“We’re going to have to find a way to survive on the glass,” Smith said. “Defensively, it’s not gonna be the same, where we’re blocking every shot.
“Being able to rebound against some of the big, bulky teams (will be challenging), but I also think we might be able to chase them off the floor with our offense. Hopefully, we can make that work.”
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