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Sports >  WSU basketball

Washington State basketball notebook: Cougars bring hot offense into first Pac-12 test

Nov. 30, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 30, 2022 at 7:48 p.m.

PULLMAN – During a preseason interview, Washington State men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith expressed confidence in his new-look team’s passing and shooting abilities, predicting that the Cougars “might be able to chase (opponents) off the floor with our offense.”

That hadn’t been the program’s MO in past seasons under Smith. WSU was known most for its defense. But the Cougars signed several capable shooters and passers this offseason, becoming more of an offensive team in Smith’s fourth year.

Coming off two of its most impressive shooting/assisting performances of Smith’s tenure, WSU opens Pac-12 Conference play this weekend with a test at Oregon and a home game against Utah. The Cougars visit Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene for a 7:30 p.m. tip Thursday, then host the Utes at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Cougars (3-2) doled out 20 assists in each of their past two games. They also hit 15-plus 3-pointers in both games – blowout wins over Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy.

Throughout Smith’s first three years , WSU hit 15 or more 3-pointers in just two contests and totaled 20-plus assists in only two games.

“I think it was a recruiting issue in the past,” Smith said Tuesday of his team’s low assist numbers in the past few years. “We added some guys that really share the ball, and that gets contagious. It’s a little bit of our identity, I hope.

“We’re evolving and that needs to be part of the deal, but we have talked all year (about) how we can separate if we bang a bunch of 3s.”

WSU ball-handlers found the open man and made sharp passes to the perimeter during an 82-56 victory against EWU and a 96-54 thumping of Detroit earlier this month. The Cougars tallied 40 assists against 17 turnovers.

“I feel pretty confident that we’re an unselfish team, as far as they don’t really care who scores,” Smith said.

WSU went 15 of 30 from beyond the arc against the Eagles and set a program record for made 3s four days later, shooting 19 of 29 against the Titans. The Cougars rank sixth nationally in 3-point percentage (44.4%) and eighth in made 3s (11.2 per game). WSU is the Pac-12’s No. 3-scoring team at 76.2 ppg.

“You can’t count on (hot 3-point shooting) every night,” Smith said. “We gotta be grittier defensively and we gotta really, really work on rebounding. It’s a challenge, because we’re smaller (than opponents) every night – most nights, especially in the league.

“The concerns are: Can we defend and rebound well enough on the road against better competition?”

WSU bounces back following ‘wake-up call’

After opening their season with a well-rounded home win over Texas State, the Cougars struggled to find a rhythm on offense in a competitive loss at Boise State, “one of the best defensive teams in the country,” Smith said.

WSU’s defense faltered and the Cougars were outrebounded in an ugly road loss to underdog Prairie View A&M on Nov. 15.

WSU logged nine assists against 30 turnovers and shot 13 of 47 from distance in those two games.

“Hopefully, it was a bit of a wake-up call,” Smith said of the early two-game skid. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road. … You’re going to find out a little bit about yourselves. We recovered nicely.”

WSU held EWU to 31% shooting and bottled up star Detroit guard Antoine Davis, one of the top 15 scorers in NCAA history.

Individual standouts so far

Jabe Mullins, a Saint Mary’s transfer and former Washington Class 4A player of the year at Mount Si High (Snoqualmie), hit 14 of 19 attempts from long range and totaled 46 points across the Cougars’ last two games.

Mullins shot about 60% on 3-pointers during WSU’s preseason scrimmages, “which is kind of absurd,” Smith said.

“But he’s doing it in games and it’s a nice weapon to have,” Smith said. “He’s going to really alter defenses. They’re going to be really aware of him, and Jabe is more than just a shooter. He has a good feel for the game. He’s got good size (6-foot-6). He’s a better passer than he’s probably shown.

“I expect he’s going to have to adjust. (Opponents) are gonna really make it hard for him to get looks. He’s going to have to get to the second and third layers of the defense and make some other plays, which he’s more than capable of.”

Mullins is shooting a team-best 56.7% from 3 and averaging 14.2 points per game – second on the team. Veteran guard TJ Bamba paces the Cougars at 16 ppg on 52.9% from the field. Mullins and Bamba both rank in the top 10 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage.

Point guard Justin Powell, a Tennessee transfer, is tied for third on the team with 12.2 ppg. He adds 5.8 rebounds per game and has been WSU’s leader with 27 assists against just four turnovers. Powell ranks second nationally in assist/turnover margin.

Those three players have combined to shoot 44 of 81 on 3s. The rest of the Cougars are 12 for 45 .

But WSU’s backcourt starters should open more opportunities for standout big man Mouhamed Gueye. The sophomore has taken on expanded responsibilities this season with center Dishon Jackson sidelined due to an unspecified medical issue.

“He’s taken the knockout punches early and that’s part of the process,” Smith said of Gueye, who was contained during WSU’s two losses but returned to form in the wins.

He’s averaging 12.2 ppg (49% from the field) and seven rebounds.

“(Opponents) are doubling him in the low post or even at the elbow,” Smith said. “They’re bringing help. But he’s super unselfish and he enjoys what his teammates are doing. We got three guys that are really shooting it well from 3. Eventually, (opponents) are probably going to adjust to that and it’ll be easier. But ‘Mo’ is willing to share the ball. He’s a terrific defender. He’s been rebounding well, making his free throws.”

Injury report

Smith expects reserve forward Carlos Rosario to return versus Oregon after missing the Detroit game with an illness. Junior forward Andrej Jakimovski, one of WSU’s most experienced players, remains out with a foot injury that has kept him sidelined for every game this year.

“Andrej, not for this week,” Smith said. “He’s probably still further along. A little slower than we had hoped.”

Rosario, a third-year Cougar and former four-star recruit, has given WSU key minutes off the bench, averaging four points and three rebounds per game.

Depth has been an issue, especially in the frontcourt. True freshmen posts Adrame Diongue and Mael Hamon-Crespin have played sparingly as they find their feet at this level. The Cougars are hoping Diongue develops quickly, so they can shift Gueye from center to his natural position at the “4.”

“Adrame’s been a good backup, as far as just giving us energy, a defender, shot-blocker, rebounder,” Smith said of the four-star 7-footer. “Mael has been a guy that is coming on. … He’s eager to get better and he’s got a little girth (6-9, 235 pounds), which we definitely need when we play these (bigger) teams.”

True freshmen guards Dylan Darling, a Spokane native, and Kymany Houinsou are both playing a little over 15 minutes per game.

“The more experienced those younger guys get, the better we get,” Smith said. “(Darling) really provides a defender at the point of attack. … Kymany has been emerging in practice and it’s showing up in games.

“We’re going to need contributions from everyone and hopefully, we get healthy. Getting Andrej back will be a big bonus.”

Notes on the opponent

The Ducks (3-4) have also been dealing with depth problems.

They had six scholarship players available in their most recent game, a 74-67 win over Villanova at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland. Oregon went 1-2 at the event, losing to ranked teams UConn and Michigan State.

Ducks centers Nate Bittle and N’Faly Dante did not play against Villanova, which is welcome news for the Cougars’ undersized frontcourt.

“They are playing a little smaller with (Bittle and Dante) being out, but I think Dante’s most likely back,” Smith said. “That’s where coach (Dana Altman) is more in his comfort zone – spread the floor with his guards and play a little smaller, but they are awfully imposing inside.”

Oregon is led by senior guard Will Richardson, who averages 13.7 points and 4.9 assists per game.

Gueye will go head-to-head with UO 7-footer Kel’el Ware, a true freshman who was a McDonald’s All-American last year.

The Ducks have been streaky this season. They absorbed one of the worst losses under Altman early this year, falling to UC Irvine 69-56, and were dominated by 20th-ranked UConn, but played tough in losses to third-ranked Houston and 12th-ranked Michigan State before breaking through against Villanova.

Oregon sits at 43rd on statistician Ken Pomeroy’s national rankings. WSU checks in at No. 60. The Utes rank 63rd.

“Everyone’s in the same disadvantage a little bit, trying to figure out their team this early in the year and going in the pressure cooker, playing in a league game,” Smith said of the early Pac-12 challenge. “It ups the stakes early. We’ll find out a little more about ourselves.”

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