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WSU Men's Basketball

Washington State is winning again thanks to players’ development — and coaches’ eyes for talent

PULLMAN – Jaylen Wells has picked up a favorite hobby on the court. He’ll put the ball in the basket for Washington State, maybe via 3-pointer or a midrange jumper, and immediately turn to the opposing coach.

“Just to see how mad they get,” Wells said.

As WSU racks up wins, inching a half-game back of first place in the Pac-12 and building a credible resume for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in well over a decade, Wells is making plenty of opposing coaches mad – not because he’s frustrating them, but because he’s flummoxing them.

Wells is becoming so many things others didn’t see in him. A former Division II All-American, Wells made the leap to Power Five basketball ahead of this season, joining a WSU team trying to rebuild a depleted roster. Except he spent the first few weeks of the season injured. He didn’t join the starting lineup until the second week of January.

That’s when he began rolling out the shooting, the playmaking, the shot creation that has made him invaluable to the Cougars. It’s when he started shooting like he is now – 45% on four 3-pointers a game – and soon after, he started creating for himself, the kind of ability that has baffled other coaches who didn’t see it coming.

“He has an engineer’s mind,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Those guys usually don’t let you down.”

There may be no better way to explain the Cougs’ rise, the way they have earned their first AP ranking since 2008 and commanded the attention of the nation, than by detailing the development of Wells – and the evolution of many of his teammates. WSU’s roster includes nine newcomers, including six who are playing their first season of Pac-12 basketball.

It might seem like WSU is coming out of nowhere, as if the Cougars are shaking off one of the nation’s longest NCAA Tournament droughts – and their past decade of ineptitude – by capturing lightning in a bottle for one winter. Dig a little deeper, though, and you understand WSU is making this run possible in two main ways – identifying talent and developing players.

The examples live up and down the roster. Wells has gone from Division II star to reliable wing defender and shooter in the Pac-12. Redshirt freshman Myles Rice, back on the court after battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is blossoming into one of the conference’s best players. Forward Isaac Jones, who played three years at junior college and last season at Idaho, has become a versatile playmaker.

Add to that center Oscar Cluff, an Australia native who played two seasons at an Arizona junior college, has become a two-way force in the starting lineup. True freshman guard Isaiah Watts has earned spot minutes by connecting on timely 3-pointers, unlocking his team’s offense when it’s stuck in mud. Freshman center Rueben Chinyelu, who hails from Nigeria, has harnessed his raw athleticism and become one of the conference’s best shot-blockers.

Even veterans on this WSU team have improved in ways that have made the Cougs’ run possible. Senior wing Andrej Jakimovski has built confidence in his shot and tenacity on defense – “Andrej has been our most dependable defender throughout,” associate head coach Jim Shaw said – and sophomore guard Kymany Houinsou has prospered into a sturdy defender, both on the perimeter and around the basket.

The Cougars are winning because they’re flourishing in ways they hadn’t before, trusting coaches not just because they’re helping them improve – but because they were right to trust them to ascend to this level in the first place.

Smith and his staff have pulled it off out of necessity. The Cougs lost all four of their top scorers from last season: TJ Bamba transferred to Villanova, Mo Gueye and Justin Powell went pro, and DJ Rodman transferred to USC.

It also helps to have the keen eye of Smith, the coach who keeps winning wherever he goes, the 54-year-old whose instincts are paying off at the highest level, believing in guys like Wells like other Division I coaches did not.

“I had a really good hunch that he was good,” Smith said.

As No. 21 Washington State (20-6, 11-4 Pac-12) heads into one of its biggest games of the season, a road showdown with No. 4 Arizona on Thursday for first place in the conference, never have Smith’s premonitions seemed so prescient.

Washington State forward Jaylen Wells looks for a way around Stanford forward Spencer Jones in the first half Saturday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State forward Jaylen Wells looks for a way around Stanford forward Spencer Jones in the first half Saturday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

***

Kyle Smith had a bad feeling. It was last spring, shortly after the basketball season ended, and his team was in the final running for the services of the 6-foot-11 Cluff, who was looking to transfer from Cochise (Arizona) College.

Washington State had one other team to beat out, California, a conference foe. The Cougs were a tad ahead of the Golden Bears, Smith felt, but Cal had one advantage: Assistant coach Chris Harriman was an Australia native, just like Cluff, and Harriman wanted Cluff, too.

“I was like, ‘Oh no,’ ” Smith said. “That’s another relationship that was gonna be hard to beat.”

Fortunately for Smith, he had one up his sleeve, too. In the early 1990s, when he was working his first coaching job as an assistant at San Diego, he befriended Jerry Carrillo, back then a high school head coach in southern Arizona. During breaks in San Diego’s summer team camps, Smith and Carrillo became buddies.

Three decades later, they’re still friends. Smith is the head coach at WSU and Carrillo is the head coach at Cochise College – where Cluff played the past two seasons.

“He’s a coach’s coach,” Smith said of Carrillo. “He’s not necessarily gonna promote his guys, in a sense. He’s just gonna try to find them a situation where they’re gonna get coached, and it’s a good fit. I think that 30-year relationship really helped us.”

That set the stage for the Cougars’ latest coaching development, which has to do with Cluff and his emergence as a defensive stopper, which keyed WSU’s latest wins, over Stanford and Cal. To beat the Cardinal, Cluff recorded three blocks and three steals; to beat the Golden Bears, Cluff swatted four more shots, showing a level of defensive acumen that was only present in shades earlier in the season.

The receipt came in the numbers — and the coaching decisions. In Cluff’s previous 10 games, he averaged less than one block one steal per contest. When WSU needed defense at the center spot, Smith often subbed in Chinyelu, a true freshman. It was clear Smith didn’t trust Cluff as much on defense.

That is changing for two reasons: Shaw, for all intents and purposes the team’s defensive coordinator, has worked with Cluff on that end. Cluff has also taken more pride on defense, which is a key reason why the Cougs have soared to No. 22 nationwide in block percentage, posting a 13.6% figure.

“He’s even more engaged defensively,” Smith said of Cluff. “I think he’s really, he’s kind of got the point guard brain and the big body back there. So he maneuvers, tells people where to go. He’s got really good hands – that’s where you get the three steals.”

“Going through the lower levels really grows you as a person,” said Cluff, who averages 8.23 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. “You gotta go through the struggle a little bit, especially JUCO – it’s not the prettiest, not the prettiest thing to go through. Being able to play at this level obviously gives you a little bit more respect for the game.”

Washington State forward Oscar Cluff, right, looks for a way around Stanford forward James Keefe in the first half on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Wa.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State forward Oscar Cluff, right, looks for a way around Stanford forward James Keefe in the first half on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Wa. (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

These examples are littered throughout WSU’s roster, which ranks first nationwide with an average height of just over 6-6. Take Jones, who spent the first three years of his career at Wenatchee Valley and played last year at Idaho, a 10-win midmajor. He may have had some of his ability all along – “I got a chip on my shoulder,” he said earlier this season – but he’s also become a two-time Pac-12 Player of the Week by developing new parts of his game.

One of the most important has to do with his low-post game, which is a key part of his scoring output, 15.7 points per game, second on the team behind Rice. Around the basket, he’s so athletic, so nimble that defenses have often resorted to double-teaming him when he catches it in the post.

To beat that look, Jones has expanded his game with a hook shot over his left shoulder, using his athleticism to rise up before the second defender can arrive. He hit a couple earlier this month, in WSU’s overtime win over rival Washington in Seattle. That wasn’t as big a part of his game at Wenatchee Valley, or at Idaho. It’s a bigger focus for him because he’s stayed the same interior force he was in years past – and because he’s opened up his game with the help of the Cougars’ coaches.

On that front, the most credit goes to assistant coach Jeremy Harden, who Jones considers his mentor. Harden was Jones’ head coach at Wenatchee Valley and his assistant at Idaho. He’s had the biggest hand in developing Jones, helping him build the athleticism to dunk – even at 6-9, he couldn’t do so consistently until his first year at junior college – and the confidence to try the occasional midrange jumper, which he has knocked down with some regularity.

Even before he showed that, Smith was in on Jones. In the summer of 2022, when Jones was looking to move on from Wenatchee Valley, he came to Pullman for a visit at WSU. In one workout, he played 3-on-3 with a few Cougars. Jakimovski wasn’t guarding Jones, but he was on the other team.

“He was unguardable,” Jakimovski said.

Instead, Jones took his talents to Idaho, where he averaged 19 points and eight rebounds for the Vandals. After the season, a vacancy opened up on WSU’s coaching staff, so Harden came over – and so did Jones.

Now Jones looks like WSU’s second-best player. He’s grabbing 7.6 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 62% on 2-pointers, which make up almost the entirety of his shot diet. He has scored in double figures in all but two games. He has shone in the biggest moments, posting 14 of his 20 points in the second half of the Cougars’ win over the Huskies, connecting with Rice for a pick-and-roll dunk to send the game to overtime.

“He just helped me elevate my game so much, I didn’t wanna go to another school without him,” Jones said of Harden, explaining why he chose to play last year at Idaho. “I wish I would have come here the first year. But I loved my experience at (Idaho).”

Central to the growth of the whole operation, at least among the players, is Rice. It’s one thing for him to be WSU’s best player as a redshirt freshman, racking up seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors, averaging 15.9 points and 3.7 assists. It’s another that WSU coaches found him – and identified a teenager who could lead a team in the locker room.

That story goes back to Rice’s senior year of high school at Sandy Creek in Atlanta, where head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson saw Rice’s potential. Power Five programs did not – at least not most of them.

Nickerson sent out emails to head coaches of power-conference schools, writing something along the lines of, This guy is way underrecruited. Here’s some film on him. One of the only responses came from John Andrzejek, a WSU assistant coach who departed the program in August. Andrzejek and the Cougs offered Rice. It was his only Power Five offer.

Where other coaches saw a lack of size and athleticism – Rice stands 6-3, and he rarely dunks – WSU coaches saw playmaking and shot-making potential. They hit on that bet, landing a guard who has made so many of the Cougars’ best plays this season – a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime against Cal. Another 3-pointer to bury Washington. A program-record 35-point outing against Stanford.

He’s the team’s best ball-handler, best playmaker, best midrange shooter. Understated in his development, though, has been the way he has grown in becoming a better defender and leader.

Nobody in WSU’s program questions who the team’s vocal leader is. Rice has earned the title partially by being himself. In practice, he distracts teammates doing media interviews. He’s the team’s de facto DJ, controlling music during practice and on the road, bringing a Bluetooth speaker wherever he goes.

“Before the games, it’s gotta be ‘Love Sosa’ by Chief Keef,” Rice said.

On the court, Rice leads WSU in steals at 1.7 per game. He’s also one of the team’s sturdiest point-of-attack defenders, almost always guarding the opponent’s lead ball-handler, a challenge considering the Pac-12’s Isaiah Collier of USC, UW guard Sahvir Wheeler and Arizona’s Kylan Boswell.

Rice said he wasn’t always the best defender, at least not when conference play began. He had to adjust to lots of factors, he said: the speed of the game, the physicality of his matchups, the consistency of both. He’s had lapses, like failing to get back and prevent a runout dunk against Oregon State, like taking his eye off Wheeler and allowing him to get to the basket in crunch time.

But coaches trust Rice to guard some of the opponents’ best because those plays are outliers, not normal moments.

“I’ve just been able to understand different angles and been able to see who I can pressure and when I can pressure,” Rice said. “Time and score, that obviously plays a factor into it. So if I know we’re on a nice little run, and I think we can get nice little momentum play if I disrupt the ballhandler, I might try to go out there and do that. Just picking my spots on defense and knowing when and when not to take a little chance.”

Rice has become so good that his story is becoming less about the way he beat cancer and more about the way he’s flourishing on the court, which might be the biggest compliment he can receive. But Rice’s growth as a defender underscores the way all of his teammates have prospered on that end of the floor, too.

It’s possible Shaw has had the quietest influence on the biggest development on the team.

“I have the human cheat code,” Smith said.

***

Earlier this year, Shaw had to go way back in his archives. He tracked down footage from a 2001 game between Maryland and Oklahoma, where worked as an assistant in the early 2000s, to refresh himself on one defensive concept he helped install with the Sooners: the matchup zone.

This happened in early January, when WSU learned two valuable pieces of information. Transfer guard Joseph Yesufu would miss the rest of the season with a hip injury and reserve guard Dylan Darling would also miss the whole season with an injury. That cost the Cougars two on-ball defenders they were counting on at the beginning of the season, but when WSU understood neither would be returning to the rotation, Shaw could move forward with a new defensive plan.

It was bittersweet to Shaw, who had been vacillating between different looks on that end. The Cougs usually fashion themselves a man-to-man team, but as they tried to find their footing on defense, they wobbled. On Jan. 6, they played a lot of zone against Oregon, which torched that look for 14 3-pointers in an 89-84 win.

WSU associate head coach Jim Shaw chats with forward Kymany Houinsou during the Cougars’ game against Oregon State earlier this season.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)
WSU associate head coach Jim Shaw chats with forward Kymany Houinsou during the Cougars’ game against Oregon State earlier this season. (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

Soon after, WSU learned that neither Yesufu nor Darling would be returning. Shaw knew that meant the team’s starters would be playing more minutes, which would put them in danger of foul trouble, not to mention exhaustion. He needed a new plan.

That’s where the matchup zone came in. In layman’s terms, it’s a combination of man and zone defense, an approach that dictates man-to-man responsibilities in certain areas of the floor. Sometimes it means a guard like Rice ends up defending a post player, but in general, it’s designed to confuse opponents and increase how defenders switch.

Shaw and WSU made a commitment to it ahead of the 72-64 road win over USC on Jan. 10. Since then, the Cougs are allowing an average of 67 points per game – and that includes the game Shaw missed, WSU’s 90-87 overtime win over UW, when he sat out with a medical scare.

“As soon as the UW game was over,” Wells said, “I said, ‘Oh, we need Shaw.’ ”

“It’s given us something that we can get better at defensively and something that we can use to maybe keep our opponents off-balance,” Shaw said of the matchup zone. “It’s really, really helped us.”

The numbers prove his point. WSU ranks second in the Pac-12 in defensive rating, posting a mark of 100.0. The Cougars are 15th nationwide in defense on shots inside the arc, allowing a 44.9% shooting percentage, and they are 20th in the country in effective field-goal percentage defense, at 46%. The one area they struggle is creating turnovers – they average just 5.4 steals per game, second to last in the conference – but they’ve treaded water on that front, too.

It’s a credit to Shaw, who has helped his guys become better individual defenders by putting them in better positions on the floor. Behind the team bench during games is a tablet connected to the TV broadcast feed, which allows coaches like Shaw to review film on the fly, giving him the ability to make better in-game adjustments.

In the zone defense, for example, Shaw will have to make more adjustments because opposing offenses are running actions to counter it, like running a post player to the top of the key, then down to the bottom – forcing the Cougs to switch to avoid a mismatch. Fortunately for them, four of their starters stand 6-8 or taller, allowing them to switch easily.

That’s a conscious decision Smith and his staff made in recruiting. They swapped last year’s five-out look for a big-centric approach, which has toughened their defense. With the way they help players mature and bloom, they’ve come up aces.

In that way, the Cougs aren’t surprising themselves. Just others.