It was the long game that paid off for Washington State men’s basketball in the Mouhamed Gueye sweepstakes.

In a given year, it’s not uncommon for anywhere from 125 to 150 college basketball coaches to file through Prolific Prep. The academy in Napa, California, has something to offer just about every high-major program in America. In 2019, it had something every program coveted but only a select few could realistically obtain.

At the height of Jalen Green’s recruitment, the foot traffic at Prolific Prep might have been slightly heavier than usual, understandably so for someone who was considered the nation’s top-ranked combo guard. WSU, a program with ties to the Bay Area and Prolific Prep, has been known to drop by the Northern California basketball factory from time to time, but in 2019 – less than a full year into the Kyle Smith era – the Cougars weren’t necessarily there because they thought they could hook the academy’s biggest fish.

While many of the blue bloods focused on Green, who’d eventually bypass the college experience altogether and enter the NBA G League, the Cougars took notice of a young, slender forward who was parked on Prolific Prep’s bench because of nagging ankle injuries.

“Because you’ve got to remember, that year we had like eight other Division I guys and Mouhamed was a skinny guy from Senegal,” said Philippe Doherty, a co-director at Prolific Prep. “No one was really paying attention to him and he was kind of injured. His teammates were Nimari Burnett (Texas Tech), Jalen Green (G-League Ignite), Saba Gigiberia (Georgia Tech), Mawot Mag (Rutgers) and Coleman Hawkins (Illinois). …

“There’s dudes. We have some dudes. No one’s going to really take – who’s this skinny sophomore?”

As Gueye overcame his injuries, his role on the court expanded. As older teammates moved on to college, programs would predictably latch on to the 7-footer with good handles and a smooth jump shot. Kansas, UCLA and Rutgers all offered scholarships. Gueye fielded a phone call from Kentucky last week and interest from Illinois, Arizona State and California escalated through the recruiting process.

But the glitz of Kansas and glamour of UCLA weren’t big selling points for Gueye. At least, they weren’t as important as loyalty and trust, two things WSU managed to build from an early stage with the African-born prospect who’d already taken a major leap of faith, leaving his home and family in Dakar, Senegal, to give his basketball dreams better odds of panning out.

“It all comes to trust. It’s been tough not having college coaches come see you,” Gueye said, referencing the NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period that’s shadowed over college basketball since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “So it really comes to trust. I really trusted (WSU assistant) John (Andrzejek) and Kyle (Smith). … They were real with me, and that’s what I like about them.”

WSU coaches communicated weekly with Gueye for the better part of two years. After every game, he could anticipate a text message from Andrzejek. If he played well, Andrzejek offered congratulations. If the production didn’t meet Gueye’s high standards, Andrzejek would encourage him to keep his spirits up.

“He was really there for me,” Gueye said.

But Gueye also was making a basketball decision, so committing to WSU on Friday also was about finding a school that would use his tools – of which there are many – and give him the best chance of moving on to the NBA. Right now, he’s considered the country’s sixth-best forward prospect and the nation’s No. 34 overall recruit, but NBADraftRoom.com already projects him as the No. 8 pick in the 2023 NBA draft, which would give Gueye two years to sharpen his game on the Palouse before turning pro.

“I think just how they play, just how they play free,” Gueye said of the Cougars. “I think I’ll help a lot, because I’m a big who can push the ball and that’s going to make the game a lot faster, easier for everybody.”

The majority of recruiting sites WSU fans were scrubbing through Friday to gather more information on Gueye list the player at 6 feet 11, 205 pounds. But Doherty, the man responsible for bringing the Senegalese big man to Napa, makes a clarification: “Mouhamed is 7-foot and one-eighth inches tall in shoes with a 7-3½ wingspan.”

In a YouTube compilation titled “Mouhamed Gueye Best Kept Secret of Senegal,” Gueye can be seen in one highlight clapping aggressively for the ball before receiving it on the elbow, setting his feet behind the three-point line and shooting it into the basket. The three-minute video also contains a clip of Gueye running the length of the floor before powering home a dunk and swinging his legs into the air until they’re almost parallel with the basket.

“You look at him, he’s a tall, long, agile player,” said Doherty, who played college basketball at Santa Clara with Steve Nash before becoming an assistant coach at the University of San Francisco from 2002-06 – a period of time that helped him get to know Smith and WSU associate head coach Jim Shaw, then assistants at Saint Mary’s. “But Mouhamed’s strengths are his ability to run, to move, to jump and because the way our program is structured, there’s only size and he was able to play kind of what he’s going to play in college or maybe professionally.”

Doherty terms Gueye’s three-point stroke as “beautiful” and said he believes he has the ability to be a “35% or above three-point shooter” in college, depending where his shots come from and how hard he has to work to get them.

“He’s a face-up four, a wing that shoots threes, that can really rebound, that can block shots,” Doherty said. “If he would’ve been a little more healthy, he would’ve even progressed that much quicker even though he accelerated his development.”

Gueye’s versatility would potentially allow the Cougars to roll out a bigger lineup that includes the 7-foot Gueye as a small forward, 6-10 Efe Abogidi at power forward and 6-11 Dishon Jackson at center.

It would give WSU NBA-level length and rim protection on the defensive end without sacrificing much on offense, given that Gueye and Abogidi can step out to shoot the three.

“We haven’t talked about it yet,” Gueye said. “But I’m sure I’ll play wherever they want me to play. Whatever it takes to win, I’ll do it.”

The recruiting process has been limited to virtual visits for Gueye, so his first trip to Pullman is still on the horizon. Settling in and integrating with a new team can be an unnerving part of the process for an incoming player, but Gueye’s already found a level of comfort with the Cougars.

Part of his recruitment that shouldn’t be downplayed were conversations with WSU sophomore guard T.J. Bamba, a Bronx, New York, native whose family also traces its roots back to Senegal. Gueye and Bamba began exchanging social media messages in the dialect of “Wolof” once the Cougars started recruiting him. WSU’s roster also includes Abogidi, a Nigeria native, and Canadian combo guard Jefferson Koulibaly, whose family comes from Guinea. He’ll be one of eight international players on WSU’s roster next year.

“We’ve been talking a little, but that’s definitely going to help,” Gueye said of Bamba. “It always helps to have some brothers with you, so I’m really excited about it.”