WHAT: Texas Southern (0-0) at Washington State (0-0)
WHERE: Beasley Coliseum (11,671), Pullman, WA
WHEN: Wed., Nov. 25, 8 p.m. PT
TV/RADIO: Pac-12 Network (Greg Heister & Dan Dickau); Washington State IMG Sports Network (Matt Chazanow and Craig Ehlo).
The highly anticipated second season of Kyle Smith’s tenure as Washington State men’s basketball coach begins Wednesday night.
Smith, though, won’t be there.
Sidelined after a positive COVID-19 test, Smith will instead watch from his home a Cougars roster bolstered by seven promising newcomers, which join eight returning players (seven with playing experience) from the 2019-20 club that snapped its long Pac-12 Tournament losing streak before the season was shut down due to the ongoing pandemic.
“Obviously, it’s an adjustment but Kyle has stayed really involved,” Assistant Coach Jim Shaw said Monday. “He talks with the guys before practice, after practice talks with us (assistant coaches) multiple times per day. So, though it’s an adjustment, it’s been minimized by how much involvement he still has.”
Shaw has head coaching experience. Prior to joining Smith’s staff in 2019-20, Shaw led the Western Oregon program to a 102-30 record over four years, the overall No. 1 ranking nationally and the Division II tournament three times.
He has over 25 years of Division I coaching experience, including nine seasons as an assistant coach at Washington (2004-13) and five years at Oklahoma under Kelvin Sampson (1999-2004).
The Cougars have just four upperclassmen (2 seniors, 2 juniors) on the 15-man roster, earning WSU the distinction of being one of the youngest teams in the country. They are also one of the most diverse with players from 11 different states or countries.
“We’re young but I feel good about the team,” Smith told Andy Katz of the Pac-12 Network. “We’re doing well. But many of them are inexperienced. Our best scorer needs to be our offense. We need to be more efficient there and more balanced and play the right way. We want to make people scout us this year. We’re going to have to run some stuff to make people prepare for us. After that, we need to stick to the same things: be tough, defend, rebound and take care of the ball.”
Several true freshmen are expected to have major roles, among them 6-foot-10 forward Efe Abogidi (Delta State, Nigeria), heralded 6-foot-8 forward Andrej Jakimovski (Kvia Palanka, Macedonia) and 6-foot-5 swingman TJ Bamba (Bronx, NY).
Another freshman, Quebec native Jefferson Koulibaly, a 6-foot-3 guard, is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. His absence hurts an already thin backcourt.
“We have league games next week (Oregon State, at Colorado) but I don’t think we’ll have our rotation etched in stone by then,” Shaw said. “For sure, by Christmas we want to have our rotation pretty well set.
“Efe will definitely have a major impact. He’s a little bit raw but his athleticism is unique. As the year goes along, Andrej and TJ are both guys that will play quite a bit.”
Who succeeds NBA Draft second round selection C.J. Elleby (drafted by Portland Trailblazers) as the statistical and/or emotional leader of the team is a key question. The top returner is Preseason All-Pac-12 selection Isaac Bonton, who averaged 15.3 points per game in 2019-20, 11th highest in the conference.
Biggest areas of improvement? Shaw says Smith has emphasized throughout preseason camp that the Cougars must get better in the half-court offense.
“He wants us to be a better half-court offensive team,” Shaw said. “How that plays out is hard to say. Portland now has a pretty good offensive player on their team that was here last year. We’ve definitely spent a lot more time working on our half court offense than we did last year.”
2020-21 Washington State Men’s Basketball Roster
First 8 games on 2020-21 schedule: