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WSU Men's Basketball

Guard Joseph Yesufu is likely out for the year. How can WSU replace his production?

WSU’s Jaylen Wells dribbles upcourt during the Cougars’ game against Colorado earlier this season.  (Matt Steele)

PULLMAN – A few days ago, when Kyle Smith called upon reserve guard Isaiah Watts for some spot minutes in a road contest, Washington State’s head men’s basketball coach wasn’t just hoping for a spark off the bench.

He was testing the Cougars’ depth as they wade into new waters.

That’s because WSU will miss guard Joseph Yesufu for the rest of the season, Smith confirmed Wednesday. The transfer played the first six games of the season before going down with a hip injury, which has kept him sidelined for the past seven contests. It has since become clear to Smith and WSU’s medical team that Yesufu will not return this year, a costly blow with several repercussions for the Cougars.

Without Yesufu, WSU loses a steady hand at point guard, a reliable scorer and good ball-handler.

WSU’s roster has eight newcomers outside of Yesufu, a huge reason the Cougars were thrilled about landing him. They were excited about his experience, his ability to lead by example on the court.

Yesufu came to WSU from Kansas, where he played two seasons and helped the Jayhawks win the 2022 national championship. Prior, he played his first two seasons at Drake, where he averaged a career-best 12.8 points per game as a sophomore. This season is Yesufu’s fifth at the college level.

Smith said he isn’t sure whether Yesufu will qualify for a medical redshirt. NCAA rules dictate that to acquire a hardship waiver, which grants another year of eligibility, players must not have “participated in more than three contests or dates of competition or 30% of the maximum number of contests … whichever is greater.”

When Yesufu suffered his injury, he had played in six games, which translates to 19% of the team’s regular-season games .

If Yesufu has played his last game this year, he finishes having averaged 6.2 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, shooting 36.8% from the floor and 34.8% from beyond the arc. His best game came in WSU’s loss to Mississippi State in Connecticut, when he scored 15 points, hit four 3-pointers and added five assists.

“I don’t know if it was chronic, or just something that was kind of a nagging thing that just got to the point where it is too painful for him to really go,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s gonna be anything that can get him on the court quickly enough, is what I’ve been told.”

In Yesufu’s absence, the Cougars (9-4, 0-2 Pac-12) will ask more of perimeter players Myles Rice and Kymany Houinsou, both starters, and bench players Watts, Jabe Mullins and wing Jaylen Wells. It’s an opportunity for those players to step up – now out of pure necessity.

Their next chance to prove themselves comes when WSU hosts Oregon State at 8 p.m. Thursday and Oregon at 7 p.m. Saturday.

As they try to snap a two-game losing streak, setbacks against Utah and Colorado last week, the Cougars will need to turn a few trends around – and build on a few promising ones.

At the heart of WSU’s loss to Utah last week, and in parts of its defeat to Colorado, was its lack of offensive production. The Cougars shot just 31% from the floor against the Utes. They bumped that to 48% against the Buffaloes, but they lost three turnovers in the final 3 minutes, costing them a chance to complete their comeback attempt.

WSU didn’t shoot it well enough from the outside to earn the respect of defenders. In turn, the floor shrank, complicating things for the Cougars’ post players. That’s who Smith prefers to play through, so with less space, they’re having a tougher time producing like they usually do.

“That’s part of the adjustment. We have to do some different things offensively to kind of handle that,” Smith said. “It’s not easy, and the best way (to break out) is to make some perimeter shots – but I’m not sure that’s necessarily our constitution. So we need those guys to step up, and do the job defensively, too.”

This winter, WSU is taking just 25% of its shots from deep (No. 291 nationally) and making 32.5% (No. 208). The Cougars are also shooting 66.4% at the free-throw line, which is No. 304 nationwide.

For WSU, the good news on that front is forward Andrej Jakimovski seems to have emerged from a slump. Headed into the Colorado game, he had made just six of his past 26 3-point attempts, a mark of 23%. Then he hit four 3-pointers and scored 19 points on Sunday, providing the Cougars with the perimeter shooting they needed to give everyone more space to operate.

His teammates made sure to capitalize. Center Oscar Cluff scored 16 points, including a few midrange jumpers that Smith is encouraging him to shoot. Cluff is more comfortable around the basket, using post moves to spring free for hook shots and layups, but he’s proven he’s a capable shooter from around 15 feet.

That’s a crucial development for WSU in a couple of ways: If Cluff’s defender hangs back in the paint, Cluff might sink it from the free-throw line. If not, Cluff might turn it down, but that opens cutting lanes and more space for those around him.

It’s the kind of win-win scenario from which all of his teammates can benefit – and maybe even mirror. Wells has established himself as a reliable long-distance shooter – “I’ve realized that I’m naturally shooting deeper 3s now, just because they’re guarding me farther out,” he said – but he wants to improve as a midrange shooter. Those are the looks he can access by head-faking and stepping past the arc, he said.

“I honestly think getting to the basket is something I do really well, and making free throws,” Wells said. “So I kind of look forward to it.”

Against Oregon State, which is coming off a win over USC and a loss to UCLA, WSU will see something of a mirror image. The Beavers play big, Smith said, much like his team does. Among their best players are guards Jordan Pope and Dexter Akanno, plus forwards such as Tyler Bilodeau and KC Ibekwe, who stand 6-foot-9 and 6-10, respectively.

On Saturday, WSU gets a 10-3 Oregon team that has won two straight, including wins over USC and UCLA. The Ducks play at Washington on Thursday night.

Reserve guard Darling recovering from back injuryWSU sophomore guard Dylan Darling, a Spokane native, is on the mend from a back injury that has kept him on the shelf for much of this season. He appeared in two of the Cougars’ first two games, wins over Prairie View A&M and Idaho in November, but he has been sidelined since.

He is now day-to-day, Smith said, signaling he is nearing a return. When he comes back, the Cougars will get a 6-2 guard who played in 25 games last season, with four starts. He averaged 1.7 points, 0.6 assists and 1.7 rebounds per game last season.