Washington State men need to sustain their Pullman play

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At jolly Beasley Coliseum this year, Washington State’s men’s basketball team has welcomed home a pair of all-time adored program celebrities. The team has set recent bests in attendance figures.

The Cougars (14-10, 5-6 Pac-12) have more wins than they’ve had in eight years, and 12 of them have come on that freshly painted Friel Court.

So the days have been fun in Pullman. They’ve seen a top-10 upset of Oregon, an indescribable Klay Thompson Day, and, most recently, an inspiring celebration of former coach George Raveling, who prodded the Cougs’ crowd during an eventual win against Washington that broke a three-year Apple Cup drought.

“We’ve been able to defend really well at home,” first-year WSU coach Kyle Smith said when asked to explain the home success. “Just playing with a sense of urgency.

“They’ve kinda smelled the finish line at home, and have been able to close some people out.”

Maybe it’s come from the hoopla, or the added layer of comfortability a young, new-look team might feel in its own building. The question pervading the program for months has been whether or not the Cougars can carry over their play at home, spearheaded by defense, because off the Palouse, it hasn’t been cheery.

WSU is 0-4 in league road games. It “ran into a buzz saw” in a rout to Stanford, blew leads against Cal and Utah, and got worn down by persistent Colorado.

Smith’s team already has been invited to the lower-level College Basketball Invitational tournament, but he’s aiming higher.

If he’s shooting for the NIT — or better? — Wazzu most definitely will need to fine tune its road play. Five of its final seven games are away from Pullman. WSU starts the grueling stretch against on-the-rise UCLA at 8 p.m. today in Pauley Pavilion (Pac-12 Network).

“It’s what I’ve said all year, ‘We gotta defend, rebound and take care of the ball,’” Smith said, “and we haven’t been able to defend well enough (on the road). If you don’t do that, you’re not gonna have a chance.”

The purveyor of “Nerdball” pulled out some figures to expand on the road woes. Most notably, WSU’s opponents shoot 60 percent from 2 and almost 40 percent from 3, and score about 11 more points when hosting the Cougars.

“You’re not beating anyone doing that,” Smith said.

Both of those numbers experience drops of about 10 percent at Beasley. In addition, WSU turns its opponents over at a higher pace when it’s at home.

The Cougs also are tagged with fouls at a faster rate when they’re not in their own confines.

Standout Noah Williams “fouled out in six minutes at Utah,” Smith said. Williams has been a rock for WSU on the defensive side of the ball. His presence might have prevented a lengthy lull from getting too out of control in Salt Lake City.

“We didn’t have enough depth on the perimeter,” Smith said. “So, that was a youthful indiscretion I’d say.”

Smith is more set on his lineup and shortened rotation now too, although it could be a little tricky easing formerly injured notables Tony Miller and Marvin Cannon back in.

“Trying to get those guys up and running is gonna be important,” Smith said. Miller, at 6-foot-7 and quick for a forward, speeds up the defense, as does Cannon, a long guard. Neither played on WSU’s last road trip.

Solving a battered frontcourt — basically comprised of dinged-up Jeff Pollard — was a necessity. Smith said the Cougs have been defending better now that he’s “committing to playing (Volodymyr Markovetskyy) as (Pollard’s) backup.

“Now when Jeff picks up some fouls, just throw him in there, and if the score stays the same or better, Vova stays out there.”

That hadn’t been the case in WSU’s four road losses. Pollard had to shoulder a lot. Against UW, with Markovetskyy subbing as needed, Pollard appeared refreshed and outworked five-star Husky freshman Isaiah Stewart.

Smith acknowledged his team has shown flashes of inexperience, and gotten impatient on the offensive end in road games, leading to fewer chances at the line. In losses to the Buffaloes and the Utes, the Cougs shot from the free-throw line a combined 12 times.

“Whatever it is, I think people shoot more free throws at home,” Smith said. “We’ve been impatient. I don’t think we’ve given it a chance. I think we get sped up on the road. We’ve brought some good efforts, but kinda been impatient.

“We’ve got to make a better effort to get paint touches, either with the pass or with the dribble.”

Smith’s goal is to finish out the year with a winning record. He’ll have to buck the trend — both for his team, and the cannibal-league Pac-12, where home teams have won more than 70 percent of their games.

“We’ve played four of ’em so hopefully we’re more comfortable, we compete better,” Smith said.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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