Kyle Smith may not have been bracing for this exact scenario, but the Washington State coach figured the unpredictable nature of the college basketball season meant his highly regarded freshman class would probably have to take on a big role in 2020-21.
In games against Arizona, California and Stanford, the Cougars started three freshmen for the first time since 2006, when Tony Bennett rolled out a lineup that included Aron Baynes, Caleb Forrest and Chris Matthews in the Pac-10 Tournament against Oregon. In total, freshmen have played an average 101.6 minutes per game for the Cougars and 305 total minutes since a double-overtime loss to the Wildcats.
It’s unclear when the last time a WSU team started four freshmen, but the next time could be Thursday on the road against a UCLA team that’s ranked No. 21 in the Coaches’ Poll, has won nine of its last 10 games and is still unbeaten in Pac-12 Conference play under second-year coach Mick Cronin.
When WSU (9-2, 2-2 Pac-12) and UCLA (9-2, 5-0) tip off at 2 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion, there’s a good chance the Cougars will roll out a lineup that includes senior Isaac Bonton, freshman TJ Bamba, freshman Andrej Jakimovski, freshman Efe Abogidi and freshman Dishon Jackson.
Jakimovski, Abogidi and Jackson have been in the starting five the last three games, but Bamba will “probably” be making his first start of the year if sophomore guard Noah Williams isn’t cleared to play, Smith said. Williams, who’s arguably been the team’s best two-way player this season, was undercut on a drive to the basket and took a hard fall in the first half of Saturday’s game against Stanford, causing him to miss the remainder of the game.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Smith said. “I think it’s just a matter of rehabbing a little bit; it was a little bit of a stinger. He’s kind of moving around, but not to where I’d say he could play if we played today, but we’ll see where he’s at. We’re operating as if T.J. will have to start right now, and that might be the way we go anyway depending on Noah’s health.”
Bamba gives the Cougars a big, strong body in the backcourt, and has taken on tough defensive assignments in 11.7 minutes off the bench this season. He went 0 for 6 from the field against Stanford, “but I thought Bamba did well,” Smith said, adding “he missed a couple of bunnies, but his defense was good.”
The young lineup gives WSU the strength, size and athleticism to match up against Pac-12 teams that have traditionally feasted on the Cougars, but it also leaves Smith’s team vulnerable from a ball-handling standpoint. The Cougars have committed at least 12 turnovers in every game this season and lead the Pac-12 at 14.73 per game coming off a season-high 17 turnovers against Stanford.
“We’ve got to grind through it; we’ve got to value the ball better,” Smith said. “Some of it’s our frontcourt. Jeff Pollard and CJ (Elleby) played a lot of time at the 4 and 5 and were small and undersized but good ballhandlers. To be frank about it, we’re young in there and that’s not their strength. Their strength is length, size, rebounding, but we’ve got to be able to play through them.”
Three WSU players didn’t travel to the Bay Area last week due to COVID-19 protocol. Of those, Smith is expecting one, sophomore walk-on Brandton Chatfield, to be with the Cougars in Los Angeles, but the coach isn’t as optimistic about the chances of forward DJ Rodman or guard Ryan Rapp returning to the court.
Smith applauds No. 25 women
During Tuesday’s conference call, Smith was asked if he’d given thought to the recent success of the WSU women’s team, which climbed into The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in school history after an overtime upset of No. 7 Arizona.
He’s done much more than that.
“I’m glad you asked. I’m a huge fan,” Smith said. “I’ve watched them every Sunday, or every chance I get really. But my wife and I lock in. She played, so we’re just watching them. The way they play, they’re so unselfish.”
WSU coach Kamie Ethridge was hired one year before Smith, so the men’s coach said his counterpart has provided a good model of how to turn around a program — and one that Smith has monitored closely since he arrived in Pullman.
“When I got here, right from the giddy up I knew they worked hard, they’re in the gym all the time whether it’s with coaches or without coaches,” Smith said. “To see them turning it and the way they’re doing it, playing with a lot of enthusiasm, love for the game, they’re a joy to watch and also a great model for us.
“… We’re using them as a role model, that I hope we can make such strides.”