While Kyle Smith may be going into his fifth season in charge at Washington State, almost everything feels new.
Whether that turns out to be a good thing for the Cougars depends on how quickly Smith can pull together a roster that’s undergone an overhaul.
“A lot of new faces,” Smith said. “We’ve been doing it long enough, should have a decent pulse on what our talent feels like. I feel good about our talent. Really like our guys. It’s going to take a little time, probably because we have so much new, but I do feel good about them.”
The amount of new for Washington State is the concern. Gone from last season are the top four scorers from a team that went 17-17 and lost in the opening round of the NIT. TJ Bamba (15.8 points per game) transferred to Villanova. Mouhamed Gueye (14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Justin Powell (10.4 points) moved into the professional ranks. And D.J. Rodman (9.6 points, 5.8 rebounds) transferred to USC.
Washington State’s top returning scorers from last season are guard Jabe Mullins (8.4 points) and forward Andrej Jakimovski (7.7 points).
“I’m trying to lead this team because I’ve been through three different years, three different teams,” Jakimovski said. “Our team this year is completely different because we got nine new players, and I think coach Smith and the coaching staff, they did a great job putting every piece together. We’re just trying to get better every single day.”
The most impactful newcomer for the Cougars is likely to be Kansas transfer Joseph Yesufu, who started his career at Drake before playing mostly off the bench the past two seasons for the Jayhawks. Washington State also expects big contributions from Idaho transfer Isaac Jones, who was named the Big Sky Conference newcomer of the year last season after averaging 19.4 points per game for the Vandals.
But around Yesufu, Jones, Mullins and Jakimovski, there are mostly big questions and big roles likely to be filled by young, unproven players.
"This team probably needs just a little patience earlier,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can get it up quicker than that and do our best in the league.”
Yesufu likely won’t carry the scoring load, but he has a chance to be the most impactful of the newcomers for the Cougars. Yesufu averaged 12.8 points per game two years ago at Drake before transferring to Kansas. Yesufu played sparingly both seasons and averaged just 12 minutes per game last season.
“Yesufu is really important to us because he can score, he can lead. He’s been in a winning program,” Smith said.
Jones is likely to carry the scoring load. The 6-foot-9 forward dominated the Big Sky last season, including a game against Sacramento State when he had 42 points and 12 rebounds.
One addition the Cougars hope to have for their backcourt is guard Myles Rice after he missed last season while receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rice was regarded as one of the top 50 point guards in the country coming out of high school in Georgia but redshirted during the 2021-22 season before missing last season due to his treatment.
“He’s such a life-giving force, anyone that’s met him,” Smith said. “He’s really positive, optimistic through all of that. He’s been out for two years, and he’s very talented. Just needs to let him grow a little bit, let him feel himself and get going.”
Washington State’s nonconference schedule doesn’t have many highlights but Smith thinks that’s a good thing for a team with so much change. The Cougars will play Mississippi State and either Northwestern or Rhode Island in November, and will play Boise State in a neutral site game in December. January brings consecutive games at No. 21 USC and home for No. 12 Arizona. The Cougars close with five of their final seven at home, capped by games against USC, UCLA and Washington.
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