In new WSU coach David Riley's introduction, he hopes to avoid rebuilding -- but he has experience doing so

Apr. 4—PULLMAN — Days before David Riley took the head coaching job at Washington State, before he made the 90-minute drive from Cheney for his introduction on Thursday, his job became dramatically tougher.

That's because many of the current Cougars, the players who helped the program reach its first NCAA Tournament in 16 years, hit the transfer portal. Since their season ended in late March, 10 players have entered the portal, and on Thursday, junior wing Jaylen Wells declared for the NBA draft.

Wells retains the option to return to WSU, as do the other 10 Cougars who have entered the portal. But it's unlikely that all return, which means Riley will have some work to do: Either convince some of the players to stay — or rebuild the roster in the weeks and months ahead.

"My first goal is to retain," Riley said. "I want every single one of these guys back. I don't have some preconceived idea. ... These guys are incredible players that mean a lot to this university. If I can retain, there definitely will not be a rebuild. That's the first piece."

Can Riley do it? Six WSU players attended Thursday's news conference, including Wells, senior wing Andrej Jakimovski, freshman center Rueben Chinyelu and walk-on center AJ LeBeau, the last three of whom are in the portal. Also in attendance were freshman guards Isaiah Watts and Parker Gerrits, both of whom appear to be staying put in Pullman.

That made the absence of a few players noticeable. Guard Myles Rice was not in attendance, and neither was junior center Oscar Cluff, both of whom are also in the portal. Sophomore wing Kymany Housinou and senior guard Joseph Yesufu (who missed nearly the whole season with an injury) also were not at the news conference.

They could have missed for any number of reasons — they're still student-athletes with class schedules — but their absences may have offered a glimpse into the way Riley may have to retool the roster over the offseason. All players in the portal can return to WSU, but even if a majority return, Riley will have to find replacements.

The good news for WSU is that at Eastern Washington, where he spent the past three seasons as head coach, Riley did just that. In the offseason of 2021, when Riley took the head position, the Eagles lost all seven of their top scorers, including forward Tanner Groves and guard Kim Aiken Jr., the linchpins on an EWU team that made the NCAA Tournament and threatened third-seeded Kansas.

The next year, guard Steele Venters broke out and EWU finished the regular season three games above .500, making the postseason at the Basketball Classic. The season after that, the Eagles won the first of their two consecutive Big Sky regular-season titles, while Venters took home conference MVP honors and EWU landed two players on the all-conference first team.

Riley hopes he doesn't have to rebuild this WSU roster, but if he does, he has experience to draw on.

"Comfortable with the idea of that," Riley said. "It all starts with development. We had a bunch of guys that were under the radar, that weren't supposed to be good coming out of high school. It's kind of the idea of those guys. We had these great players, but the idea of (former EWU player) Tyler Harvey coming in, walking on for two years and in (the fourth year) being the leading scorer in the country and getting drafted by the Magic.

"That idea can transfer to all these different players if you work the same way. You have guys here that have the same kind of idea, the same story and the same background. We just gotta use that. We're gonna develop. We're gonna work. I want these guys because they're really good."

If Riley does have to rebuild in some capacity, he might look at his EWU team, which won the Big Sky regular-season title last season before falling in the conference tournament.

Junior wing Casey Jones, a second-team all-conference pick who averaged 13 points and ranked first nationwide in free-throw rate last season, entered the transfer portal on Thursday. Riley said he had not talked to Jones since he entered the portal.

Among other potential candidates to come from EWU to WSU: all-conference first-teamer Cedric Coward, a 6-6 guard; second-teamer Ethan Price, a 6-10 forward; and LeJuan Watts, a 6-6 forward who won Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors last season.

Riley didn't offer much in the way of whether any of those guys could follow him to WSU.

He did say that when he took the Washington State job, he called each Eagle individually to thank them for their contributions — "for the opportunity they gave me to come here. It was all them," Riley said.

"We'll see where things lie," Riley added.

He sang much the same tune on the topic of his staff, which he hopes to finalize in the days ahead, he said. He offered no hints on potential candidates, but one of his EWU assistants, Jerry Brown, attended Thursday's news conference.

On Friday, Riley will head to Phoenix to watch the Final Four, he said.

It's then that he hopes to complete his coaching staff.