WSU

No. 21 WSU, ranked for first time in 16 years, set for showdown vs. No. 4 Zona

Feb 20, 2024, 10:50 AM | Updated: 10:50 am

WSU basketball Rueben Chinyelu...

WSU basketball player Rueben Chinyelu during a Feb. 15, 2024 game. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

(AP Photo/Young Kwak)

WSU men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith had just finished watching his team almost entirely shut down Stanford last weekend, and win for the 10th time in its last 11 games, when he made a rare admission for college basketball coaches.

WSU men’s basketball cracks AP Top 25, ending 302-week drought

“Right now,” Smith said, “this is the best team we’ve had in five years.”

The No. 21 Cougars can underscore just how good they are Thursday night, when they carry their first AP Top 25 ranking since the 2007-08 season into a Pac-12 showdown with fourth-ranked Arizona. WSU sprung an upset at Arizona last year, when the Wildcats also were in the top five, and beat the perennial heavyweight in January in Pullman, Wash.

“We’ve done it before, but it’s the hardest place to play in the country,” said Smith, who took the Cougars to back-to-back NITs but has his sights set firmly on their first NCAA Tournament bid since that 2008 team lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.

“It’s going to be loud and crazy, and that’s probably the No. 1 challenge: Can we handle that?” Smith said. “They’re good at home, and they’re fast and they’re athletic. And they’re big. Did I mention that? We’ll give it a good go, see what happens.”

Only good things have been happening lately for long-suffering WSU (20-6, 11-3), which sits a half-game back of Arizona (20-5, 11-3) as the Pac-12 schedule hits the homestretch. The Cougars’ only loss since the first week of January came in overtime at California, and they avenged that loss in a rout last week.

See WSU and Arizona in this week’s full AP men’s basketball top 25 poll

The last time they had a 10-1 stretch in conference play was during the 1940-41 season, when they had a 13-1 streak in the old Pacific Coast Conference. That team lost to Wisconsin 39-34 in the national championship game.

“We appreciate it,” Cougars forward Andrej Jakimovski said, “but I think we’re just taking it day by day and game by game.

“Obviously we have a lot of compliments,” Jakimovski added, “and there are people asking, like, ‘What’s the difference from this team and last year’s, or the year before?’ And I’m always saying: ‘We have such a good group of guys. We love each other, on and off the court.’ You can see the connection we have, and that’s the beauty of this team.”

The difference is bearing out in win-loss column. The Cougars need two wins to match the team two years ago that won 22 but needed a run to the NIT semifinals to get there, and three would give them their most wins since going 26-9 in 2008.

So while many coaches might demure when they are asked to compare teams, Smith hardly seemed to have a problem calling this year’s bunch “the best team we’ve had in five years.” Because the truth is, there really is no comparison.

The WSU radio broadcast of Thursday’s game at Arizona will air live on Seattle Sports 710 AM, the Seattle Sports app and SeattleSports.com beginning at 7:30 p.m. with the pregame show.

BRUTAL BIG 12

Iowa State moved up to No. 6 in the AP Top 25 on Monday, the highest ranking for the Cyclones since Dec. 14, 2015, and just in time to face second-ranked Houston in yet another massive showdown in the brutal Big 12.

The Cyclones at least get a reprieve — if there is such a thing — when they play last-place West Virginia this weekend. Houston follows with a trip to No. 11 Baylor for the only scheduled meeting between those schools this season.

Speaking of the Bears, they have to visit No. 25 BYU on Tuesday night.

SEC ON THE RISE

The Big 12 is starting to feel some pressure from the Southeastern Conference when it comes to conference superiority. The football heavyweight has six teams in the AP Top 25 after Florida entered the poll at No. 24 this week, matching the Big 12 for the most of any league.

The Gators will take their ranking on the road Wednesday when they play No. 13 Alabama, which began the week with one-game lead over Tennessee in the SEC race. Florida has won three straight while the Crimson Tide have won six of their last seven.

Alabama’s tough week continues on Saturday, when it plays No. 17 Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

WINNING STREAKS TO WATCH

UConn was voted the unanimous No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday, thanks in part to its nation-leading 14-game winning streak. The Huskies will try to keep it alive through a trip to No. 15 Creighton on Tuesday night and a visit from Villanova on Saturday.

No. 18 Saint Mary’s has a tough week ahead as it tries to extend a 13-game winning streak. The Gales play San Francisco, which is 20-6 and two games back of them in the West Coast standings, on Tuesday before playing San Diego on Saturday.

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