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‘That’s why we play the games.’ High-potential Washington State team picked surprisingly low in preseason Pac-12 media poll

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 13, 2021

Washington State guard Noah Williams, left, forward Efe Abogidi, left-center, center Dishon Jackson, center, forward Andrej Jakimovski, right-center, and forward DJ Rodman huddle up after a timeout in the second overtime of a Pac-12 game against Stanford on Feb. 20 in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
Washington State guard Noah Williams, left, forward Efe Abogidi, left-center, center Dishon Jackson, center, forward Andrej Jakimovski, right-center, and forward DJ Rodman huddle up after a timeout in the second overtime of a Pac-12 game against Stanford on Feb. 20 in Pullman. (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

It came as a surprise to many of the Washington State faithful that the Cougars’ improved men’s basketball team was picked by Pac-12 media members to end up eighth in the conference.

Cougars fans – and a couple of college hoops analysts, too – wondered why WSU came in so low on the preseason poll, announced Wednesday morning to kick off the Pac-12’s media day in San Francisco.

Third-year coach Kyle Smith can see both sides.

On one hand, he understands it’ll be an uphill climb in a conference that distinguished itself last season as one of the nation’s most competitive, top to bottom.

The Cougars’ roster is packed with youth, and Smith also pointed out WSU hasn’t finished better than 10th in Pac-12 play in his tenure.

Then again, this team is clearly on the rise. An argument could certainly be made that it has the potential to contend for a postseason bid.

“We’ll find out. That’s why we play the games,” Smith said. “We don’t invest too much in (the polls), but we do feel like we were competitive last year.”

The Cougars pocketed wins over five opponents that eventually earned berths to last season’s NCAA Tournament, including victories against three Pac-12 foes that made deep runs – UCLA (Final Four), Oregon State (Elite Eight) and Oregon (Sweet 16).

In the offseason, WSU gained more talent than it lost. Some pundits have tabbed the Cougs a dark-horse NCAA Tournament qualifier.

“Hopefully, eighth will be a little chip on our shoulder,” said Smith, whose contract was recently extended through the 2026-27 season because of the encouraging start to his time in Pullman.

“We’ve got to (prove) it. We’ve had some success. … We have some things to build on. We just gotta be consistent and keep building.”

Smith was joined at the media day by newcomer Tyrell Roberts – a junior transfer from Division II UC San Diego – and athletic sophomore forward Efe Abogidi, who was named an All-Pac-12 preseason honorable mention Wednesday.

Earning a first-team preseason accolade was junior guard Noah Williams, the Cougars’ defensive ace who last year added high-volume scoring capabilities to his repertoire.

Expectations surrounding WSU’s program grew considerably over the offseason after the Cougs finished 14-13 for their first winning record in nine years. Seven of their losses came by single digits. WSU followed up its promising campaign by landing a recruiting class ranked in the top 60 nationally by 247Sports.com.

“Our depth is really good,” Roberts said. “We have a lot of options. It’s going to take some time for us to jell because we’re so new, but once that comes together, I believe in us 100%.”

Thin backcourt depth and ball-handling limitations plagued WSU last season, but Smith highlighted “impactful additions” at the guard position as a vital development.

He called Roberts a walking “bucket,” boasting exceptional quickness, leadership qualities and a knack for distribution.

“He’s got the DNA to win,” Smith said. “He brings a lot of the same skill sets that Isaac (Bonton) did as far as an ability to play-make, run point. He can score and obviously there’s going to be a transition I’m sure, but we’ve had a wonderful summer together.

“The reason he’s down here today is just his leadership.”

South Alabama transfer point guard Michael Flowers – “another guy I’d describe as a bucket,” Smith said – ranked 15th in the country last season in per-game scoring (21 points).

“He’s instant offense,” Smith said of the senior. “Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, I think he’s going to be a guy you’re going to have to account for on the scout. He addresses some of the issues we had last year, as far as ball-handling. He’s a good ball-handler, a good scorer, but he’s more than just that.”

Returning guard T.J. Bamba, a bouncy sophomore, is expected to make a scoring jump and help fill the void left by two-year starter Bonton’s departure. Smith and his staff had high hopes last season for freshman combo guard Jefferson Koulibaly, but he missed the year with an arm injury. Koulibaly’s length and quick feet on the perimeter are a plus for a program that has built its identity upon defense under Smith.

WSU features more defensive athleticism than last year, but Smith noted the Cougars need one of their younger guards to “develop quickly and be able to handle some of the guards in this league.”

Between Abogidi and sophomore bruiser Dishon Jackson – both of whom started the majority of WSU’s games last year – the Cougars should be set in the frontcourt. Providing key support minutes will be rookie Mouhamed Gueye, a touted four-star recruit from Senegal.

“He’s an awesome player,” said the 6-foot-10 Abogidi of the 6-11 Gueye. “I believe, coming into this season, we’re going to be great.”

Smith’s primary concern centers around the Cougars’ age. Seven underclassmen will play significant roles.

“Our talent is there, just the experience is where we’re lacking,” he said. “We’re still very youthful. Jim Shaw, my associate head coach, says we’re like a junior-college team, age-wise.”

Still, the Cougars’ program hasn’t attracted outside attention like this in years, and Smith acknowledged as much. WSU hasn’t been picked in a preseason poll to finish this high in the conference since 2010.

And it felt like WSU could easily have been predicted to finish higher.

The Cougars were feeling confident during spring workouts, Smith said, joking that they had their “chests puffed out” because of the Pac-12’s success at the NCAA Tournament.

“We were proud of our league and of what we’ve done: We beat a Final Four team with six freshmen,” he said in reference to WSU’s 81-73 win over UCLA in February in Pullman. The Bruins are the media’s favorites to win the conference.

“We’ll see how it comes together,” Smith said. “The league’s good, man. … We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ll welcome it.”

Smith announced the program’s new motto to the masses.

“Winter is coming – that’s our theme,” he said. “Come on up to Pullman.”

The Cougars open their season Nov. 9 at home against Alcorn State. Pac-12 play begins Dec. 1, when WSU travels to Arizona State.

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