The first year of the Kyle Smith era at Washington State won’t be as telling as the second or third, but a program that averaged 11 wins per season under Ernie Kent and never won more than 13 should expect to be more competitive, and more capable on defense, than it has in the past.

Backcourt

When Ahmed Ali elected to transfer in August, it opened up a late roster spot for Smith. The coach spent it wisely, picking up Texas State graduate transfer Jaylen Shead, who started for the Bobcats’ 24-win team in 2018-19 and led the Sun Belt in assist-to-turnover ratio. Another former Division I player, Isaac Bonton, could anchor the other starting backcourt spot for Smith. Bonton, an explosive slasher, most recently played at Casper College in Wyoming, where he scored 21.3 ppg, but began his career at Montana State. Marvin Cannon, another athletic guard, returns after starting in 20 of 32 games last season and hitting the 20-point plateau twice.

Frontcourt

CJ Elleby was one of the conference’s most dynamic freshmen in 2018-19 and will be counted on to carry the scoring and rebounding load with the departure of Robert Franks, who’s now a two-way player for the Charlotte Hornets. Elleby led WSU with 28 games started last season, averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. Former Utah State forward Daron Henson brings Division I experience to the frontcourt, as does Deion James, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound grad transfer from Colorado State who made 21 starts for the Rams in 2017-18 before redshirting last year due to an injury.

Washington State forward CJ Elleby (2) lays up the ball as Utah’s Novak Topalovic (13) and Donnie Tillman (3) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Washington State forward CJ Elleby (2) lays up the ball as Utah’s Novak Topalovic (13) and Donnie Tillman (3) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Bench

If Jeff Pollard isn’t in the starting five, the senior captain who elected to stay in Pullman after spending time in the transfer portal will be the first option off the bench. Nobody on the roster has more Pac-12 games under his belt than the 6-9 forward and Pollard’s commitment to defense should make him a valuable asset in the new regime. Freshman guard Noah Williams should push for a starting role, too, but the 6-5 combo guard from Seattle will be part of the rotation nonetheless. The son of former WSU point guard Guy “The Fly” Williams was an All-Metro League football player and averaged 17.5 points per game on the hardwood while leading O’Dea to a 3A championship.

Coaching

Smith and his coaches track more than 50 statistical categories for each player – everything from how many “blow bys” or “fly bys” they allow on defense, to how many feet they have in the paint in rebounding situations. Assigning value to every player allows coaches to have a better understanding of what the team does well and which players are more deserving of floor time. At USF, Smith’s style was known as “Nerdball,” but some WSU fans have urged the coach to adopt the nickname “Data Raid.” Smith hired his former director of operations at USF, John Andrzejek, to be a top analytics assistant. Another assistant, Jim Shaw, is a former UW assistant who’ll help with the Cougars’ recruiting presence in Seattle and the Northwest.

Key games

Fans should flock to Pullman for a Jan. 18 game against Oregon State, and not necessarily for the Cougars or the Beavers. That’s when Washington State will enshrine standout shooting guard and three-time NBA champion Klay Thompson, who’ll become just the second player in program history to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Less than a month later WSU will celebrate the career of George Raveling, and the Cougars will hold a halftime ceremony for their former coach when the Washington Huskies bring highly-regarded freshmen Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart to town on Feb. 9. WSU, which went 0-2 against its rival last season, makes a return trip to Seattle on Feb. 28.

The nonconference schedule was assembled by Smith’s predecessor and is mostly filled with non-intriguing games against low-major opponents. But the Cougars should be tested in their Nov. 7 season opener against Seattle U, led by former Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford, and they play WAC frontrunner New Mexico State in Spokane on Dec. 7. WSU travels to the Caribbean in late November for the Cayman Islands Classic, where the Cougars open against Nebraska. They could see NMSU there, too, which would signify the third of four meetings between the schools in just two seasons.