WSU men ready for uphill climb

Nov. 3—After the departure of the team's top-four scorers from last season and with a No. 10 ranking in the preseason Pac-12 media poll, the road to postseason hoops won't be easy for the Washington State men's basketball team.

WSU coach Kyle Smith found some pieces he hopes will help the rebuild, including NCAA national champion Joseph Yesufu of Kansas and Big Sky star Isaac Jones of Idaho.

But the team needs to gel in a hurry. WSU opens its season against Jones' old team in a renewal of the Battle of the Palouse against the Vandals at 8 p.m. Monday at Beasley Coliseum.

"I really like our team," Smith said during Pac-12 media days. "A lot of new faces and I've been doing it long enough I should have a decent pulse of what our talent looks like. Feel good about our talent, feel good about our guys."

WSU advanced to its second straight National Invitation Tournament last spring and finished with a 17-17 record.

Here's what to know about a Cougars team with nine new players heading into its season opener:

Two returners to know

Do-it-all forward Andrej Jakimovski and sharpshooting guard Jabe Mullins are primed for increased roles in their senior seasons.

Jakimovski is just the versatile, hustle player Smith enjoys on his rosters and the North Macedonia native is finally healthy heading into his final year after battling minor injuries his whole career.

Jakimovski is a threat from the 3-point line (34.5%) while also being able to guard bigs in the paint. The 6-foot-8 veteran averaged 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, surpassing 20 points twice and grabbing 17 rebounds in a win against Washington.

"I'm fully healthy — that was my main thing coming into this offseason and I've been working hard in the gym and the training room to try to get fully healthy and be ready to play a full season," said Jakimovski, who has battled a groin injury, turf toe and had a surgery in the last three seasons.

As for Mullins, he was the third-best 3-point shooter in the Pac-12 last season at 43.8%, mostly carving out a role as WSU's first man off the bench.

The 6-6 guard from Snoqualmie, Wash., is in his second season with the Cougs after transferring from St. Mary's. He averaged 8.4 points per game a year ago.

Two transfers to know

Jones is a player Smith says could be the leading scorer for the Cougs after he averaged 19.4 points and 7.8 rebounds — marks that ranked second in the Big Sky — en route to conference newcomer of the year honors with the Vandals.

Like Beyonce Bea of the WSU women's team, Jones didn't have to go far to find his new home.

The 6-9 fifth-year senior hails from Spanaway, Wash., and will close out his career in his home state.

"Very good scorer, can score inside and out, good size and length," Smith said of Jones.

Yesufu has already carved out a leadership role with the Cougs after transferring from the national champion Jayhawks in the offseason.

"They welcomed me with open arms," Yesufu said. "(Pullman is) a great area and it's a very peaceful area. People might say it's boring but I need that peace."

The fifth-year transfer played sparingly for the deep Jayhawks, averaging 4.1 points in 12.7 minutes per game.

Smith compared the 6-footer to small but explosive guards like former NBA dunk champion Nate Robinson.

"Great championship DNA in Joseph Yesufu," Smith said. "He's been in those battles and we're going to lean hard on his maturity more than anything."

What they lost

Last year's leading scorer TJ Bamba moved closer to home to play with Villanova in his final season, star center Mouhamed Gueye is in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, guard Justin Powell is playing pro ball in the NBA G-League with the Cleveland Charge and forward DJ Rodman is now with USC.

All four left the program with eligibility remaining.

"We need to be patient; we're a young team," Jakimovski said. "Our coaches are huge on hustle stats and all the analytics and they need a little bit of time to learn all those things (with this new team). But we've got nice guys on and off the court."

Previewing the Battle of the Palouse

It's back.

After a one-year absence, the rivalry series between Idaho and WSU returns when the teams tip off their seasons Monday evening in Pullman.

The matchup will mark the 278th meeting between the two schools eight miles apart. The Cougars own a 167-110 all-time lead in the series and have won the last four contests.

Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2277, or on Twitter @StephanSports.