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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A Grip on Sports: For one night anyway, the Cougars show Kyle Smith isn’t afraid to dig deep to earn a win

Washington State forward CJ Elleby (2) goes in for a layup in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Seattle, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Pullman, Wash. (Pete Caster / AP)
Washington State forward CJ Elleby (2) goes in for a layup in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Seattle, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Pullman, Wash. (Pete Caster / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • You might have heard some creaking late last night. Some shuffling of boxes. Maybe a “where is that darn thing” or two. If you were wondering what was up, it was simple. Cougar basketball fans were combing their closets, checking out their storage areas, looking around the house for their stored away gear. After one game under Kyle Smith, they decided it was time to pull everything out of mothballs.

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• First off, does anyone use mothballs anymore? Just wondering. Secondly, is it too early to jump on Smith’s DirtBall (patent pending) train?

Not really and, well, not really.

Look, Cougar basketball fans have been starved out the past few years. We all know that. The crowds are thin, the enthusiasm even thinner. But it’s not like they haven’t wanted to return to the dinner table.

With Smith’s arrival, many of them made reservations. And they are ready to eat.

And praise the chef, even if they’ve only dined on an appetizer.

Fine. Winning 85-54 wouldn’t be all that great if the opponent was, say, Portland Bible College or someone of that ilk (c’mon, Eastern, really?). But Thursday’s season-opening – and era-opening – opponent was Seattle University, a program that has been consistently competitive against Pac-12 schools under coach Jim Hayford. Heck, the Redhawks did win their matchup with Washington State last year against the Ernie Kent-coached Cougars – and won it fairly easily.

Not this time.

The Cougars dominated on both ends by focusing on one. This WSU team will defend. Not just more than the past few years (just about every college team did that), but as well as any Washington State team since Tony Bennett left town. If Smith has his way.

After all, the first letter in his newly designated DIRT acronym stands for Defense, so that shows you what Smith is emphasizing. (As an aside, the R stands for Rebounding and the T for Turnovers, so John Blanchette wondered what the I was for. I’m guessing Intensity but John’s selection of Interesting might be right too.)

Not just defense that makes it tough for the opponent to score, either. The type that lead to easy baskets. The Cougars forced 12 turnovers last night and they led to 16 points.

And also led to WSU basketball fans looking through boxes for their old Coach McDreamy shirts. Well, maybe not those, but you get the picture.

• Not to be Dylan Downer, but I just wanted to point out Washington State won its first game last season too. And four of its first five. Then proceeded to go 7-20 the rest of the way. The year before that, the Cougars opened 6-0 – and finished 12-19.

But if you had a chance to watch any of last night’s contest, you probably don’t feel the same way. There is a newfound optimism. This group, with CJ Elleby a year older and even more explosive offensively, and a new crew of coaches, seems to be different.

In a good way.

•••

WSU: Peter Harriman filled in for Theo Lawson on the game coverage – the football team is in the Bay Area this weekend – and has this game story. And, as we linked above, John was in Pullman last night for the game and to write this column. … Theo has a couple of football related stories, one on kicker Blake Mazza making the Lou Groza Award midseason cut and another on former running back James Williams signing a CFL contract. … Dan Thompson delves into the Cougars one offensive hiccup this season, the inability to convert third downs. … The volleyball team won at Oregon State last night. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, because it is still early November, we will start off with, well, news from the Pac-12 Network. Not good news, though. … On the football side of things, one of the interesting side notes from Saturday is the Chris Petersen vs. Jonathan Smith matchup. Mentor vs. student. Washington vs. Oregon State. … Like everyone, Oregon has some redshirt decisions to make. … Stanford is starting to get healthier, which doesn't bode well for Colorado this week. … Utah has always turned out defensive players for the NFL. Heck, the Seahawks have two rookies from the Utes. … USC announced its new athletic director yesterday and it was exactly who everyone knew it would be. Now, will Mike Bohn make a change in football? .. The Trojans and Kedon Slovis are in Tempe this week. … Just who will Arizona play at quarterback this week? … On to hoops, where Washington opens tonight in Alaska against a ranked Baylor team. Is it the start of something big for UW? … Oregon has a prodigal son on its roster. … Utah has a home game against an overmatched opponent. … So does USC. … UCLA will count success by floor burns. … Arizona has had many freshmen make great debuts.

Gonzaga: If you thought the Zags were a little lacking in depth the other night, you wouldn’t be wrong. Jim Meehan looks at the roster, the dearth of bodies and what it may mean for GU this season. … Larry Weir hooked up with Tom Hudson for the latest Press Box pod. … There is one truism in basketball. Post players take more time to develop. Recently eligible transfer Anamaria Virjoghe is hoping to break that mold. Jim Allen has more in this story. … Around the WCC, USF will play a couple of important games Saturday. … BYU will have to navigate the nonconference schedule without its best big man.

Idaho: The offensive line is always the most crucial element of a college football team. OK, that’s just one guy’s opinion, but I stand by it. Anyway, Peter takes a look at the guys who make up Idaho’s group and how they have helped the Vandals succeed.

Whitworth: Despite a nonconference loss – on the road to an undefeated Chapman squad – and an early Northwest Conference defeat, the Pirates can reach all their goals with a home win this week against Linfield and a win in the NWC finale next Saturday. Dan explains how in this story.

Preps: Washington's football playoffs begin this weekend (Dave Nichols and Sam Adams make their picks about those games), but crossover contests occurred last night. … So did volleyball playoffs. And there were also soccer matches.

Seahawks: Josh Gordon is now practicing with the Hawks. What do his teammates think of him? … Is the rivalry with the 49ers back on? After all, Richard Sherman is on the other side. … The defense needs to improve. But how?

Mariners: Seattle made some changes to its major league coaching staff.

Sounders: Seattle played with vim and vigor against LAFC. Can the Sounders do the same against Toronto with the MLS Cup on the line? If they win, they can claim to be the MLS' team of the decade.

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• If you were wondering, winter sports begin next week in Idaho and the week after in Washington. In other words, it won’t be long before you will be able to watch high school hoops again. Just giving you a heads up. Until later …

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