Washington State is rising and just getting started: 'We got a chance to do something'

Washington State Cougars head coach Kyle Smith celebrates after a game against the Arizona Wildcats at Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum.
Washington State Cougars head coach Kyle Smith celebrates after a game against the Arizona Wildcats at Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum.

When thinking about what it would take to go on the road and beat Arizona, a team that is averaging 94.3 points per game while going 13-0 at home this season, Washington State coach Kyle Smith joked his team would need to invoke the spirit of Don Larsen, the New York Yankees pitcher who threw the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956.

"You're gonna have to play a really good basketball game in there," Smith told USA TODAY Sports.

Even though it may require perfection to knock off Arizona, perfect may be one of the best ways to describe how the Smith era is evolving in Pullman. Hired in 2019 to take over a team that hadn’t had a winning record since the 2011-12 season and hasn’t been to the NCAA men's tournament since 2007-08, Washington State has gone at least .500 in every season under Smith. He said in his first four seasons in Pullman, he’s been able to bring in good talent, but it was just taking time as the "puzzles kind of came together."

The puzzle is seemingly near completion.

This season, the Cougars have risen to the national spotlight. They are 20-6, ranked in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll for the first time since 2008, second in the Pac-12 and currently projected to break that tournament drought this season, marking what has been a magical season so far in the Palouse. And things are just getting started.

"Man, we got a chance to do something," Smith said.

Envisioning a special season for Washington State

It was as early as summer when Smith realized what his team was capable of. During that time period, the team had what Smith described as something similar to a youth basketball camp, far from what one could expect a Pac-12 program to do to begin the season. He even joked with his squad about how back to the fundamentals it was for them.

But during those six weeks, Smith spoke to his team about what he believed could be accomplished.

"I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been doing this long enough. I think our talent’s good enough to play in the NCAA Tournament,’" he said. "We don't have much experience. So if we embrace it, and the quicker we put this thing together, the better chance we have."

The Cougars got out to a great start to the season, ending the non-conference slate 9-2. But when Pac-12 play began, things got a bit shaky; Washington State lost three of its first four conference games and the outlook didn’t seem as promising.

After picking up a road win over Southern California, Washington State hosted Arizona and scored the big upset to spark their current run of success. Since the win over the Trojans, the Cougars have won 10 of their last 11 games and are riding a seven-game win streak into the matchup at McKale Center.

Washington State defeated Arizona again Thursday night, taking control of first place in the Pac-12, and giving the Cougars a clear path toward clinching a regular season conference title for the first time since 1940-41, when they were part of the Pacific Coast Conference and finished as the runner-up in the tournament.

‘Keeping that focus’

The success Washington State has achieved so far has put them in a rare position: getting conference and national recognition. Freshman guard Myles Rice is running away with the Pac-12 freshman of the year race, while senior forward Issac Jones has put himself in serious consideration of being named first-team all-conference.

With the spotlight the players are getting, as well as being now a nationally ranked program, Smith has been trying to keep his team focused on there still being lots of ball left. His reminder is that you only know you’re making the tournament if you win the Pac-12 tournament, something the Cougars have never achieved.

"It's just kind of keeping that focus and that gaze on that – and try not to get swept up in it – but also knowing that's part of the process," Smith said. "As you have success, you get more notoriety.

"We'll see if we can handle it."

So far, the Cougars have handled it, and with a NET ranking of 32 and four Quad 1 wins, they are solidly in the field with five regular-season games left. But if things go sideways and they are among the first teams out, you can blame Smith. In that message to the team in the summer, Smith said if they miss the tournament, all the fault can go onto him. Right now, he's feeling the pressure of what he said as he is “tiptoeing down the stretch.”

"I thought it might take a little pressure off of them," he laughed.

Fortunately, his players have risen to the occasion, and maybe Smith won’t have to take any blame after all.

"These guys have done a good job thus far," Smith said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Washington State on unlikely NCAA tournament run, just getting started