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As Pac-12 falls apart, No. 19 Washington State provides conference one more underdog story

Cougs just a half game out of first place

By DAVID BRANDT, AP Sports Writer
Published: February 26, 2024, 5:05pm

TEMPE, Ariz. — Coach Kyle Smith had spent much of the previous 36 hours trying to get his Washington State basketball team to refocus on the task ahead, moving on from the program’s massive road win over then-No. 4 Arizona two days earlier.

Then his phone buzzed.

It was a 4 1/2-minute video from his wife — featuring highlights from the Cougars’ win over Arizona.

“I said ‘What are you doing?’” Smith said, laughing.

To be fair, Smith understands why fans of No. 19 Washington State (21-7, 12-5 Pac-12) are savoring the past month of stellar basketball. The program hasn’t won a Pac-12 regular season basketball championship since 1941, but they’re right in the mix for this year’s title — a half-game behind Arizona for first place — as the calendar turns to March.

It’s an underdog story with several layers. The most prominent is that Washington State, along with Oregon State, will be the only two Pac-12 teams remaining after this academic year. The conference is essentially dissolving, with UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon heading to the Big Ten, Cal and Stanford going to the ACC, and Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado and Utah leaving for the Big 12.

Washington State and Oregon State will play basketball in the West Coast Conference next year.

But for one more winter, the Cougars are in the Pac-12. And much to just about everyone’s surprise, they might win it.

“I told the guys before the season ‘This is a (NCAA) tournament team,’” Smith said. “If we don’t get there, it’s on me. I tried to take the pressure off, because I thought our talent was good enough. But you still don’t know.”

Now he does. Washington State appears well on its way to the NCAA Tournament — and could stick around for a few games — with a roster full of overlooked players who have blossomed under Smith’s leadership.

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Jaylen Wells — who made a clutch 4-point play in the final minute to lift the Cougars over Arizona — started his career at Division II Sonoma State, where he was an All-American before transferring to a bigger stage. Leading scorer Isaac Jones is a junior college transfer. Starting center Oscar Cluff is from Australia while Andrej Jakimovski is from North Macedonia.

Myles Rice, the team’s second-leading scorer, had to take a medical redshirt last season while undergoing treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had his last chemotherapy treatment last March.

“I think we have a lot of amazing underdog stories on our team,” Wells said. “So it just fits.”

Washington State’s rise hit its crescendo on Thursday with a dramatic 77-74 win over Arizona that capped an eight-game winning streak. The Cougars were remarkably poised down the stretch, beating a Wildcats team that hadn’t lost at home all season.

Wells said that calmness comes from their life and basketball experiences, which might be a little different than most high-level Division I players.

“It comes with our stories,” Wells said. “We just have a lot of different players who came from different places where we didn’t have the resources we have here. We don’t take it for granted. We use them every day.”

Even the 54-year-old Smith has a bit of an underdog story. He was an assistant at Santa Clara before earning his first head coaching job at Columbia in the Ivy League in 2010. Following a 25-win season, he took the San Francisco job in 2016 before being hired by Washington State in 2019.

Now in his fifth season in Pullman, Smith is on the verge of taking Washington State to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008.

The Cougars know it won’t be easy. Their eight-game winning streak ended on Saturday with a 73-61 loss to Arizona State. Smith said his team is trying to relish the present without forgetting that the biggest games are ahead.

“Being good is hard,” Smith said. “Being great is really hard.”

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