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‘We’ve got size.’ Expectations, lineup have grown for Washington State in year No. 2 under Kyle Smith

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 14, 2020

Washington State second-year head coach Kyle Smith, who guided the Cougars to a 16-16 record last season, emphasizes defending, rebounding and ball-handling.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State second-year head coach Kyle Smith, who guided the Cougars to a 16-16 record last season, emphasizes defending, rebounding and ball-handling. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

If Washington State’s basketball team fails to improve on a 6-12 record in Pac-12 Conference play from last season, it probably won’t be because the Cougars are repeatedly losing battles in the low post.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that came from losses to USC and Arizona last season – four defeats by an average margin of 16.5 points – was a revamped outlook at how the Cougars should be recruiting in the Pac-12.

That didn’t necessarily mean targeting players with the cache of USC’s Onyeka Okongwu or Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji, both top-two players in their respective states coming out of high school. But WSU coach Kyle Smith and his staff realized to combat the likes of Okongwu and Nnaji, WSU needed more strength, size and bounce under the basket.

That approach followed the Cougars on the recruiting trail this offseason as they pieced together one of the most impressive classes in program history. Impressive in hype, but also height and athleticism.

“We’re longer, quicker. We’ve got size,” Smith said during a preseason webinar Wednesday afternoon. “We’re still a little thin in the ball-handling responsibilities, so we’ve got to emphasize on doing a good job there.”

The NCAA permitted teams to begin full-contact practices on Wednesday, but the Cougars won’t start until Thursday, 44 days before they’re scheduled to begin the season with a multiteam event (MTE) in Pullman.

WSU, like most teams, hasn’t officially revealed a 2020-21 schedule, but it’s clear the Cougars will be playing MTE games on Nov. 25 and 27 (opponents TBD) and a Pac-12 game against Oregon State on Dec. 2.

Also, The Spokesman-Review reported WSU’s game against Eastern Washington will take place on Dec. 23 at Beasley Coliseum. The Cougars and Eagles were originally supposed to play at Spokane Arena, with ticket proceeds going to COVID-19 relief, but the absence of fan attendance prompted the schools to move the game.

“I come in here every day hoping we get something finalized,” Smith said, referring to the schedule. “It’s one of those things, a couple decisions we get from a couple people, it’ll knock some teams out and (bring) some teams in. It’s a mess, hot mess, so we’re just trying to work through it.

“It’s a little wild, but we’ll work our way through it. I think people are hungry to see some college basketball and it’s nice we’re going to be able to provide that.”

What exactly will the Cougars provide, coming off a largely successful 16-16 campaign – the success being relative, of course – that was cut short in the Pac-12 Tournament because of COVID-19?

The stress the Cougars placed on beefing up the frontcourt, and to some extent the backcourt, was reflected through the 2020 recruiting class, which came in at No. 33 nationally and No. 4 in the Pac-12.

Last season, 7-footer Volodymyr Markovetskyy was the only player on the roster that stood above 6-foot-9. The Ukrainian center has some company in 2020-21, however, thanks to the additions of 6-10 Efe Abogidi, of Nigeria, and 6-10 Dishon Jackson, of Vallejo, California.

Smith also emphasized a longer, springier backcourt, adding 6-5 TJ Bamba, who comes from the Bronx, New York, and 6-3 Jefferson Koulibaly, a native of Montreal. Two more high-profile signees, 6-8 Andrej Jakimovski, of Macedonia, and 6-7 Carlos Rosario, a Dominican-born wing, are multifaceted players who’ll give the Cougars a few more ball-handling options without sacrificing size and length.

Of the incoming freshmen, Smith indicated Jakimovski, Bamba and Koulibaly have the best chance to see floor time immediately. As with everything else, Smith will let the data make those decisions over the next six weeks.

“The way we do things is ‘Nerdball,’ you earn it,” Smith said. “So, it’s based on what you do in practice. We took today off, so it starts tomorrow. Live action, so live bullets are flying throughout the gym and they’ll be evaluated pretty hard and get their feedback. We’ll see who the top five guys are.”

The Cougars are replacing three starters: 6-7 wing CJ Elleby, the All-Pac-12 forward who left school early to take his chances in the NBA draft; 6-9 forward Jeff Pollard, the emotional leader of the 2019-20 Cougars; and 6-2 guard Jervae Robinson, whose elite on-ball guarding was rewarded when the conference announced its all-defense selections.

Regardless of who’s on the court, Smith said the program’s three main pillars – defending, ball-handling and rebounding – will stay intact.

“Those three have to maintain,” Smith said. “It’s hard, because we have to be better offensively; efficiency and sharing the ball. So, that takes up time in practice. We really dedicated a lot of time to trying to get tough, trying to get tough enough to compete and give yourself a chance.”

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