Just a four years ago, we were in what some would call the dark ages of Cougar basketball. The women’s team placed 10th in the Pac-12 with just three conference wins in 17 games while the men’s team finished 11th and went 4-14 in Pac-12 play.
Now, things have changed. Expectations are set. The buzz around Beasley Coliseum has revived in ways that haven’t been seen since NBA star Klay Thompson was draining corner threes in front of the student section. Cougar basketball is back.
Let’s Review: 2020-21 Men’s Basketball
Head coach Kyle Smith is entering year three as the head coach of the Cougars and what a turnaround it has been since he stepped off the plane. In his first full recruiting class last offseason, Smith brought in arguably the best class in WSU Basketball history headlined by WSU’s fifth best recruit in program history, according to 24/7 sports, Andrej Jakimovski. WSU was one of the worst power six basketball programs in the nation before Smith arrived and now, there are real NCAA tournament hopes for this Cougar team.
Last season, the Cougs finished above .500 for the first time since the 2011-12 season at 14-13. They were led by their leading scorer senior Isaac Bonton who led the Cougs with 17.7 points per game. The four other primary starters surrounding Bonton were all underclassmen. The most experienced being sophomore Noah Williams who made a big leap in his scoring abilities as he finished his 2020-21 season with 14.1 PPG on 37.9% from three which was a 23.1% leap from his freshman year. Williams also went ballistic on one February weekend when he dropped a combined 72 points in two games with Bonton sidelined with an injury including a huge 40 point game against the Stanford Cardinal that went three overtimes.
The other three starters for the Cougs were all freshmen. On the wing, Andrej Jakimovski struggled with some inconsistent shooting throughout the season but showed flashes of promise when his jumper was falling. After the season, Jakimovski entered the transfer portal but wound up coming back to Pullman.
The frontcourt was ruled by the young and extremely talented 6’10 duo of Efe Abogidi and Dishon Jackson. Abogidi once went viral on Twitter when he was 15 for dunking from the free throw line but major colleges interest began to fade when he started experiencing knee injuries. Smith and company took a chance on him and boy did it pay off. Abogidi became an instant fan favorite for his incredible inside scoring ability, uber-athleticism, powerful dunks and great defensive prowess in the paint. Abogidi finished his freshman campaign 8.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game which were enough to award him Pac-12 All-Freshman team honors and even had fans wondering if he was already talented enough to turn pro. His frontcourt counterpart Dishon Jackson fought his way into the starting rotation early in the year and become the starting center for the Cougs by the time Pac-12 play rolled around. The young center put up 7.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and nearly a block per game as he solidified his spot as the teams center.
The 2021-22 Men’s Basketball Team
G Isaac Bonton – Graduated
F Myles Fitzgerald-Warren – Transfer
F Aljaz Kunc – Transfer to Iowa State
F Brandon Chatfield – Transfer to Seattle U
C Volodymyr Markovetskyy – Transfer to San Francisco
G Tyrell Roberts – Transfer from USC San Diego
G Michael Flowers – Transfer from South Alabama
G Will Burghardt – Transfer from Linfield
F Matt DeWolf – Transfer from Brown
F Mouhamed Gueye – Freshman
G Myles Rice – Freshman
With the loss of lead scorer Isaac Bonton at point guard, Smith went out and found two high-scoring transfers in guards Tyrell Roberts and Michael Flowers to fill those point gaps. Flowers, the 6’1 grad-transfer from South Alabama, is fresh off a 21 PPG campaign with the Jaguars in which he also shot 38.8% from three. He looks to be the starting point guard.
At the two, it has to be Noah Williams. Williams is a plus defender with the capability to score at will. If his scoring takes another big leap like it did from his freshman to sophomore year, Williams has the potential to become a real superstar in this conference.
T.J. Bamba saw an increase in his role as the season went on and could be in for a bigtime leap this season. The now sophomore put up 4.2 points, 0.6 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 23 games played, only starting four. Bamba also shot an impressive 12 of 20 from 3. The athletic forward should fit in perfectly in this lineup at the three spot.
In the frontcourt, the 6’10 sophomore duo of Abogidi and Jackson should be manning the paint on Friel Court once again. Abogidi will be even more of a pure athletic force on the offensive and defensive side with a year of college basketball under his belt making him a hassle to try and guard and even more of a headache to try and get past to the hoop on the other end. He’ll have to try and stay out of the foul trouble that plagued him his freshman year. On top of already trying to get past Efe, offenses will have to try and get past Jackson as well. In the 19 games Jackson played at least 10 minutes, he recorded a block in all but six games.
These are just five names from an extremely deep bench that has a number of guys that wouldn’t surprise me to see in the starting five against Alcorn State. Let’s meet those guys.
Next in Line
The first one off the bench has to be one of the highest-rated recruits in WSU history, the 6’11 freshman forward from Senegal, Mouhamed Gueye. The ultra athletic lanky forward is gushing with potential. During WSU’s men’s and women’s basketball showcase event ‘ZZU Mania’, it was a unanimous vote by the players that Gueye would win the dunk contest being put on. The freshman didn’t disappoint as he threw down a powerful 360 dunk coming from the baseline to steal the show. Listed at 6’11, you wouldn’t be able to tell he was a forward by the way he is able to move around the court like a guard. He already has some scouts believing he already has NBA potential. It may not be too far into the season before he bumps somebody out of the starting rotation.
Andrej Jakimovski was a pleasant surprise to see return from attempting to enter the transfer portal. The forward will be a reliable three-and-d player off the bench and could make a huge impact if he can be more consistent with his shot.
D.J. Rodman falls in the same slot as Andrej Jakimovski. A great three-and-d wing that shot 41.1% from three last year. If Rodman can carry his consistent jump shot and trademark Rodman defense over, he’ll surely be in the conversation as one of the first guys off the bench.
In his two seasons at Division II UC San Diego, Tyrell Roberts was an All-American, averaging 19 points, three assists and three rebounds per game last season. While he is a shorter guard at just 5’11, he’s an incredible shooter as he hit on 46% of his threes last season and will be the teams bench marksman.
The Role Players
I don’t even know where to begin with this bench. There are solid players across the board that I would feel very comfortable with making spot starts and playing key roles late in games when the team needs them to step in.
Based off seniority, we’ll start with fifth year forward Tony Miller. Miller missed nearly the entire 2020-21 season after dealing with an injury in WSU’s opener against Texas Southern. Miller would return and only play in nine more games with the Cougs in very limited minutes before leaving the team for personal reasons. Miller struggled on defense last year and never got into a rhythm offensively. The high-flying forward will look to rebound in a big-way this season and provide veteran leadership for the young guys just entering the program.
Will Burghardt and Matt DeWolf are both incoming transfers that will be fighting for minutes on the team and provide veteran leadership and mentorship. Burghardt, a 5’11 guard from Linfield, averaged nearly 14 points, 4.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game for the Wildcats last season. Burghardt is also a sharpshooter, making 23 of 45 threes last season. DeWolf was unable to play last season with the Ivy League cancelling Brown’s season. Starting in 14 of 24 games for Brown in the 2019-20 year, DeWolf averaged 3.0 points, 1.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds a game. He’ll be excited to be back on the hardwood for the first time in nearly two years.
Ryan Rapp played the main backup guard role for the Cougs last season and will look to build off a 3.5 points, 2.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game statline. He saw some decline in efficiency towards the end of the year and will need to improve on the offensive end to remain in his spot but should start as a key guard piece early in the year for Smith.
Health issues interfered with our chance to get a good look at young Carlos Rosario last season as he only appeared in seven games with UCLA being the only game he played more than six minutes in. The lanky 6’7 forward is a plus defender and can knock down the three ball on occasion. He’s still young and has room to develop.
After medically redshirting last year, highly-touted recruit Jefferson Koulibaly should see his first minutes this season. The Canadian guard averaged 27.9 points in his senior year at Lincoln Prep and brought home the leagues MVP. He likely will fight for the starting point guard spot early and may even take it later in the year due to his plus defense.
Finally, freshman Myles Rice will be another great guard that Smith will have at his disposal. The 6’2 guard won all-state honors in Georgia due to his athleticism and incredible ball-handling. He figures to be in the mix with Koulibaly and Rapp for some key minutes at the guard position.
WSU is certainly starting to appear on the media’s radar as a bubble team. The current KenPom preseason rankings have the Cougs slated at 63rd in the nation and Torvik puts them at 55th. Multiple projections have them finishing in the top-half of the Pac-12 for the first time since the conference expanded in 2011.
Kyle Smith also loves to perform above expectations. He averages about 30 spots higher than his projected Kenpom preseason ranking.
This team has the talent to make a run at the NCAA tournament. At the very least, this team should be playing in some type of postseason basketball whether it be the CBI, NIT or the big dance in March. Smith and company aren’t the only team in Pullman dreaming of March in however.
Lets Review: 2020-21 Women’s Basketball
For the first time since the first website was dropped on to the world wide web in 1991, the Cougars were playing NCAA Tournament basketball. Thanks in large part to the masterful job Kamie Ethridge has done with this program.
Ethridge entered year three as the leader for the Cougs and helped deliver one of the most exciting basketball seasons ever. After knocking off rivals Washington and Idaho to begin the year, the Cougs snagged their first top-25 upset under Ethridge by beating #21 Oregon State 61-55. The Cougs would fall just short to #7/8 Oregon trying to snag their second straight upset but get their chance to strike again against #7/10 Arizona just a few weeks later. With 5.6 seconds to go in regulation, senior Krystal Leger-Walker inbounded to her freshman sister Charlisse Leger-Walker who would drive immediately to the paint and bank in the reverse lay-up to tie the game at 60 heading into overtime. In overtime, with the clock ticking down, game tied at 69, Charlisse would once again make a nice move to get past her defender, split two Wildcats, lay the ball up and watched the ball spin around the rim for nearly an entire second before falling in as the buzzer expired to give the Cougs a top-ten upset for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
Charlisse wasn’t done. In a late season meeting against a top-5 opponent in UCLA, Charlisse scored 13 of the team’s 15 forth quarter points, including the go-ahead three with 42 seconds to go to give the Cougs their second top-5 upset of the year and made their voice loud and clear that they deserved a spot in the big dance.
Charlisse’s incredible freshman year didn’t go unnoticed. Her seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards put her as the third player in the conference to win seven or more in a season. Those seven weekly awards would lead to her inevitable Freshman of the Year award after being tied for the conference-lead in points per game with 19.2.
The Cougs would earn their first conference-tournament win in four years, defeating the Utah Utes 57-48 in the first round but fall short against the two seeded Arizona Wildcats 60-44.
Selection Monday would be a day of celebration for the Cougars as they found out they would be the nine seed in the Mercado region and would play the USF Bulls in their first appearance in two decades. The Cougs would fall behind 38-29 at halftime but storm right back to tie the game at 45 heading into the final quarter of play. The Cougs were unable to hold on however as USF took the lead late and held on to eliminate the Cougs 57-53. While the end result was disappointing, the door is just opening for Ethridge’s Cougs.
The 2021-22 Women’s Basketball Team
G Celena Molina
G Tara Wallack – Freshman
Yeah that team that just made a run at March Madness for the first time in 20 years? They basically just said, let’s run it back. All but Celena Molina, who only appeared in nine games for about four minutes a game, return for Ethridge including Krystal Leger-Walker who will be using her added year of eligibility from COVID to return as a fifth year. The veteran earned Pac-12 defensive team honorable mention last season while still being second on the team in scoring with 9.8 points. She’ll once again run the point guard position for Kamie.
In the backcourt will be her sister, sophomore phenom Charlisse Leger-Walker. The reigning Freshman of the Year will look to continue her path to superstardom by building off her 19.2 points, 3.1 assists and 5.3 rebounds last season. She’ll be the go-to option on offense as she is great at creating space and scoring from anywhere on the court. Coug fans have to be excited that they will finally be able to watch her carve up Pac-12 defenses in-person this year.
In the mix at the guard position will also be junior Johanna Teder. The international sharpshooter from Estonia finished third on the team in threes made, including six against Oregon State. Teder lives behind the arc, shooting about 73% of her shots with her feet behind the line.
At forward will be the 6’1 senior Ula Motuga. The Australian pulled down a team-high 6.8 rebounds and nearly one block per game. Not only can Motuga get it done on the back-end of the court, but she’s also a threat to score. Motuga has the ability to shoot the three ball when called upon as she knocked down 13 of them last season. Her 8.5 points per game were also third on the team behind the Leger-Walker sisters.
Roaming the paint at center will be 6’3 Bella Murekatete. In just her sophomore season, the electric Murekatete blocked a team-high 38 shot attempts which was good enough for second in the Pac-12. She also collected 6.7 rebounds and 8.5 points per game. Don’t be surprised to see her name in Pac-12 defensive honors by the end of the season.
The starting five likely won’t see any changes from when we last saw them against USF back in March.
Next in Line
Backing up Murekatete will be a fellow 6’3 junior, Emma Nankervis. Only playing in 9.5 minutes per game, Nankervis played efficient basketball when she was on the court as she shot 45.1% from the field and almost averaged as many rebounds as she did points with 2.2 rebounds to 2.3 points. She may lack the defensive prowess that Murekatete carries but does a fine job coming in and locking down the paint for the Cougs.
Grace Sarver figures to be one of the first backcourt members off the bench again for Kamie. The two-way guard stole the ball in about half of her 24 games but had a down year from her freshman year behind the arc last year. She is still a major offensive threat as she is quick off the dribble and great at slashing to the lane and drawing contact.
Fellow junior guard Michaela Jones saw her role increase as the season progressed last year after missing the 2019-20 season with an injury. She made nearly 38% of her shots from the field in 24 games played and started one game. Her freshman season, she knocked down 40% of her threes off the bench. Jones adds to the list of sharpshooters off the bench for Ethridge.
The Role Players
Senior Shir Levy will provide the Cougs with a veteran presence off the bench. At 5’11, Levy brought down 0.6 rebounds in 5.3 minutes per game. Levy started in 28 of 31 games for the Cougs her sophomore year, but only appeared in 15 games off the bench last season. Her pure veteran leadership alone will give the Cougs bench unit an edge.
Jessica Clarke should see an increased role off the bench as a 6’4 center. In just her second collegiate game, Clarke put up her season-high of 11 points and brought down five rebounds against #8 Oregon. Clarke didn’t see much minutes after this game, partially due to the logjam at the center position with veterans Murekatete and Nankervis in front of Clarke in the depth-chart. But with a year under her belt, Clarke should see an increase in usage.
Sophomore guard Ekin Celikdemir made a guest appearance against Eastern Washington for two minutes last season dishing out just one assist. Her 5’11 frame and ability to create space and drive to the hoop make her a great inside scoring threat. She has a smooth jumper from outside and great court vision. She’ll be a great point guard option.
Listed as a 6’2 guard, Tara Wallack gave us a glimpse of brilliance when she played for Canada’s FIBA team this summer. Wallack oozes potential. She’s a force in the paint as she can bully her way into the lane against smaller guards and even go toe-to-toe with bigger forwards and centers. You can’t leave her open outside either as she can bury the three ball with ease too. On defense, she can guard positions 1-5 at 6’2 as she can move with the guards and has the stature to hang around with the bigs down low. I believe by the time we get to the conference tournament, Wallack should be a key piece in Ethridge’s rotation.
The Pac-12 preseason poll had the Cougs slated into the six spot. While this is a very fair ranking for the Cougs, remember that they were picked to finish dead last last year before going on to make school history. ESPN’s bracketology currently has the Cougs as a 10 seed in their preseason predictions.
There’s no reason to believe that this Cougar squad cant repeat history. They returned their starting five, only lost one role player and added a very talented freshman in Wallack. Ethridge has this team trending in the right direction. If they can go out and play their game, we should see the Cougars dancing in March for the second straight season for the first time in program history.
The future is bright for both men’s and women’s teams. It’s an exciting time to be a hoops fan in the Palouse as this has been a long time coming. Here’s to hoping that we can fill out both brackets with the champion being Washington State come this March.