TAKING IT FROM THE TOP

Washington State coach Kyle Smith calls out a play during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Oregon on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Pullman, Wash. 

Washington State’s Kyle Smith and his band of “bulldogs on the recruiting side” know they must cast their nets far and wide at this point to pull off a Pac-12-contender-caliber roster on the Palouse, but that’s no dilemma.

“The more hurdles, I’d go: ‘Advantage us,’ ” said Smith, the Cougars’ second-year basketball coach. “We’re willing to untangle things and hang in there longer.”

It’s been said by several new Wazzu recruits in one way or another: “They kept coming around.” And of those recruits who have jumped aboard recently? Well, many were under-the-radar gems, for some set of circumstances — be it because of injuries, their venue, a late breakout, etc.

“I kinda like them to be sleepers,” said Smith, who has tried his hardest to not pay attention to the recruiting rankings on 247Sports.com, which have his WSU team at No. 31 nationally and fourth in the Pac-12. “It’s a little bit of an uphill job. You have to be able to discern and evaluate guys, and we’re often looking at players who are a little off those rankings (until updated 247sports grades were released).

“It’s kind of a crapshoot with the rankings, but hopefully there’s some value to it. The more you sign, the higher your class is, too. We signed a lot, so that helps.”

Although Smith’s new program is on a higher tier than his past stops, it bears some similarities to the University of San Francisco and Columbia, in that, “there’s not a huge basketball population in our backyard, so we knew we really had to recruit globally.”

Top Bay Area and New York products likely wouldn’t hang around to play in a one-bid NCAA Tournament conference. And Pullman, put simply, is secluded, with not an especially storied hoops heritage in the talent-laden Pacific Northwest.

Four of WSU’s six new signees are internationals, including Macedonian Andrej Jakimovski, Dominican Carlos Rosario, Eastern Canadian Jefferson Koulibaly and Nigerian Efe Abogidi — who played at Australia’s NBA Global Academy. There are two Smith recruits who already have logged meaningful minutes for the Cougars: Vova Markovetskyy, a 7-foot Ukrainian, and Australian point guard Ryan Rapp.

“What helped us with some of the Euro guys, is there’s more exposure. People see them and have a better feel,” Smith said, then laughed. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing.”

Although international newcomers have been the talk, the composition of the Cougar staff is conducive to attracting a wide range of prospects. WSU’s coaches, Smith explains, are versatile and far-reaching recruiters.

Jim Shaw, a former player and coach at Western Oregon with ample Northwest experience — at Washington, Oregon State and Portland — was “huge to get on board,” Smith noted.

“He’d been recruiting this level for a long time, and he knew the Northwest guys.”

Derrick Phelps, a former national champion guard at North Carolina and native of Queens, N.Y., floated around the NBA in the mid-1990s, and prospered over a lengthy period as a pro in the Euro leagues. He’s been with Smith since his Columbia days.

“Derrick has a national profile. He’s always been good at identifying high-major guys,” Smith said. “He has a lot of connections in Europe, and with the prep-school scene. ... There’s a lot of guys in (New York).”

Analytics assistant John Andrzejek, who most recently coached at Dartmouth, got acquainted with Smith at San Francisco and as a student at Columbia, but was evaluating international talent “even before he was a (college) coach.” In 2014 and ’15, he assisted for the USA East Coast All-Stars developmental team, which traveled Europe.

“He’s been really connected,” Smith said of Andrzejek, who was recently named on an ESPN list of the top 40 coaches under age 40. “He’s really been pounding the bricks on the international thing for years now.”

Smith, of course, has links from his past on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Having turned around a few college programs by implementing his unique style, though, he’s furnished a reputation on a wider plane than just that. Ideally, he and his diverse mix of coaching compatriots will stake WSU to a newfound reputation in this region.

“That’s gotta be our main foothold. We need to make sure we know the Northwest and present ourselves well here,” said Smith, whose father lives in Seattle, and wife hails from Lake Chelan, Wash. “I think, the better we get, the more people will be attracted to it.”

So one might say the Cougs have cast their net wide in hopes of reeling it closer in shortly down the road.

“When we came in in the spring, we weren’t quite equipped to sign as many as we had to. We weren’t really recruiting the region or necessarily the level where we are,” Smith said. “There weren’t a ton of names, but we got some guys. We’ve just emphasized that was important to us, we just gotta get good players, and we’ve worked at it for a good 15, 16 months.”

Those in the program already have proved a resource in recruiting. WSU’s coaches encourage prospects and their families to contact current Cougs and inquire, “What coach Smith’s talking about, does he follow through on that?”

“All these coaches, we’re pretty likable. We wouldn’t have gotten to this level if we didn’t know what we were doing. Your real resource is the players,” Smith said. “That’s what sells. We talk all the time about being a character-developing program. I tell them, ‘Do your research on me, talk to people who played for me.’ I think our cornerstones are our selling point: Having a great attitude, working hard and having pride in the program.”

As of late, Smith has stayed busy with family, and virtual meetings with administrators, players and recruits. He says it helps that he can talk simultaneously with a prospect, his parents and coach, but will admit he’s champing at the bit to give some tactile instruction.

“You get down in the dumps with some of the things going on, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Smith said. “I generally am pretty optimistic. That’s how I function.”

Quick hits: what got them here?

The Cougs kept tabs on Koulibaly after he’d transferred out of Orangeville (Ontario) and to Lincoln Prep in Hamilton. The steady ballhandler, who was overshadowed by other talent at Orangeville, came to WSU’s attention by word of mouth.

Smith had been recruiting four-star center Dishon Jackson from St. Patrick-St. Vincent (Calif.) since he was a sophomore. Smith knew Jackson wouldn’t choose USF, but the chances shot up when the coach landed in Pullman. He was perhaps the first eye-opening commit for the fan base.

“It was like, ‘Hey, we should be able to track down (four-star players),’ ” Smith said. “This is at least the fourth-best conference in the country.”

Abogidi, a long and athletic post, played under Marty Clarke, the same Australian coach who instructed former Cougs Brock Motum and Aron Baynes. Abogidi, surprisingly, has family in Pullman. WSU stayed on him, despite injuries.

TJ Bamba, a New Yorker who prepped in Denver, was scouted at an AAU tournament in Atlanta last summer. The Cougars saw explosive, but under-the-radar, potential then.

Rosario, who played high school at start-up Veritas Prep (Calif.), was first spotted last April. He was pulling interest from Oregon, but his recruiting cooled down this spring. WSU circled back, and its success last season had appealed to the rangy wing.

The Cougs were on Jakimovski since last summer, then signed the point-forward June 21 to all but cap arguably the school’s best-ever recruiting class. Jakimovski told ESPN that WSU’s growing culture was alluring, as well as its conference and his playing prospects.

Colton Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.

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