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How WSU has emerged as unlikely NCAA Tournament contender 

Feb 5, 2024, 4:37 PM | Updated: 5:11 pm

WSU basketball Isaac Jones...

Isaac Jones of the WSU Cougars dunks against Santa Clara on Dec. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

In the Pacific Northwest, college sports fans have a saying: “All dirt roads lead to Pullman.” Some use it to poke fun at the rural location of WSU in the southeast corner of the state. Fans of the Cougars often say the motto with pride.

This year, those dirt roads lead to the home of college basketball’s most surprising bubble team – and perhaps the best program in the state.

Audio from Monday: WSU coach Kyle Smith joins Bump and Stacy

On Saturday night at Alaska Airlines Arena, the Washington State men’s basketball team took another step toward their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years.

Despite allowing a desperate UW Huskies team to shoot 57% from the field, WSU gutted out a 90-87 overtime victory thanks to a clinching three from star point guard Myles Rice. The loss for UW dropped the Huskies to 12-10 (4-7 Pac-12), leaving coach Mike Hopkins’ future at UW in doubt.

With the victory, the Cougars improved to 16-6 (7-4 Pac-12) with nine games remaining in the regular season. As of Monday morning, WSU was No. 40 in NET rankings, the convoluted system used to help determine NCAA Tournament seeding. The Cougars also received six votes in the latest Associated Press men’s basketball poll, ahead of Gonzaga’s two. They are tied with Oregon for second in the conference standings, one game behind an Arizona team WSU beat last month in Pullman.

WSU has won six of its past seven overall, but the Cougars are still on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Bracketologist Jerry Palm of CBS Sports has WSU as a nine-seed that will play a round of 64 game in Brooklyn against Oklahoma. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the WSU among his last four in. And college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy ranks the Cougars the 43th best team in the country.

Offseason exodus at WSU paves way for surprise season

Few expected WSU basketball to even be mediocre, let alone contend for a conference title this season. The Cougars were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll. And even that designation seemed generous, given the recent roster turnover and WSU’s long history of struggles on the hardwood.

During the offseason, star wing T.J. Bamba transferred to Villanova and center Mouhamed Gueye left for the NBA. Starting shooting guard Justin Powell declared for the NBA Draft despite having limited pro prospects, center Adrame Diongue transferred to San Jose State and power forward Dishon Jackson transferred to Charlotte.

But the most painful departure for many fans was wing D.J. Rodman. Last season on Senior Night, Rodman took the mic before tip-off and announced he planned to return to WSU for a final season. Head coach Kyle Smith responded by jumping into Rodman’s arms in celebration. But just a few weeks later, Rodman accepted a six-figure NIL offer from USC to play alongside Bronny James instead.

Smith has been a relentless recruiter during his five seasons at WSU, helping lead the Cougars to two NIT appearances. But for various reasons, whether injuries or an erratic offense, WSU never quite emerged as a serious NCAA Tournament contender. And last season ended on a particularly sour note when WSU dropped their first-round NIT game to Eastern Washington in Pullman.

Smith responded with his best offseason to date, bringing in transfers Isaac Jones from Idaho, Jaylen Wells from Division-II Sonoma State and Oscar Cluff from Cochise College, a junior college in Arizona. Freshman center Rueben Chinyelu out of the NBA Academy Africa has been a force on the defensive end, helping WSU employ a 2-3 defense that protects the paint well.

Jones, a native of Orting, Wash., has emerged as one of the best big men in the conference, averaging 15.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. To the delight of fans that still hold a grudge against Rodman, Wells has exceeded Rodman’s production, blossoming into a dynamic scorer that can shoot the three and beat his defender off the dribble.

But the resurgence doesn’t happen without Rice, a frontrunner for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and perhaps the most inspiring story in all of college basketball. Early in his college career, Rice was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was forced to sit out all of last season while receiving chemotherapy treatments, with his mom moving to the Palouse to help take care of him.

“Everybody knows that she was my rock through all my chemotherapy and everything leading up to this season,” Rice told reporters after the win over UW on Saturday night. “Just going out there and being able to put on a good performance for her, get a ‘W’ for her — this is all I could ask for, honestly.”

Rice’s cancer went into remission shortly after the end of last season, and he’s responded by becoming the do-it-all point guard that Smith has desperately sought during his WSU tenure, averaging 15.7 points and 3.7 assists per game. He’s delivered down the stretch on multiple occasions, hitting a 3 against Cal to send the game to OT, dropping a floater in the lane down the stretch against Colorado and hitting the game-winner against the Huskies. The latest feat earned Rice his fifth Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award of the season.

The Cougars’ schedule over the next few weeks isn’t easy. WSU faces Oregon State at 7 p.m. Thursday in Corvallis, then Oregon at 2 p.m. Saturday in Eugene (the Cougars radio broadcast of both will air live on Seattle Sports 710 AM and streaming on SeattleSports.com and the Seattle Sports app). Wazzu then returns home to face Cal and Stanford, then make the Arizona swing before playing their final three conference games against USC, UCLA and UW. All while dealing with the pressure of breaking a prolonged NCAA Tournament drought.

But if the Cougars hold it together down the stretch and make the field, they will go down as one of the best – and most improbable – teams in WSU history.

Zags fighting to make postseason

What about the team in Washington that’s a perennial tournament presence?

Well, Gonzaga coach Mark Few is in an unfamiliar position entering the final leg of the season: fighting for a spot in the field of 68. On Saturday night in Spokane, the Zags dropped a nailbiter, 64-62, to WCC rival Saint Mary’s, putting them two games back in the conference standings. The defeat dropped the Zags to 0-5 in Quad 1 games, a key metric the NCAA Tournament committee uses to determine postseason eligibility.

The Zags have made the NCAA Tournament for 24 consecutive seasons, the third longest streak in college basketball, but may need to win the WCC Tournament this year to keep the streak alive.

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