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WSU Men's Basketball

‘Don’t underestimate the monotony.’ Washington State battling challenges away from court during strange year

Washington State forward Aljaz Kunc stands on the court during the first half of the Cougars’ Dec. 2 Pac-12 Conference opener against visiting Oregon State, the team’s third game of the season.  (Associated Press)

It’s not that they would have enjoyed a day of skiing or any of the other winter recreational activities Colorado offers this time of year.

Still, the Washington State Cougars were embracing the opportunity to get on an airplane, travel to a different state, peer at the Rockies from the windows of a hotel room, breathe the mountain air through a mask and play in a basketball gym other than their own for the first time since March.

But Saturday’s scheduled Pac-12 game at Colorado was postponed because of COVID-19 protocol.

In addition to the physical battles that come with playing college basketball, WSU players are also fighting psychological and mental wars this year as the Cougars try to complete a 27-game regular season in the middle of a nationwide pandemic. Anything to break up the monotony of the daily routine is helpful at this point – even a brief trip to chilly Colorado.

Had they traveled to Boulder to play the Buffaloes in a Pac-12 road opener, it would have been the first time players and coaches had left Pullman since at least August, when the team formally regrouped for training camp. It also would have been their only chance to do so before Jan. 7, the date of WSU’s next road game, at California.

Pullman may be celebrated as one of the most authentic and unique college towns in America, but try being stuck there for five months during a pandemic while being constantly urged not to socialize outside of your airtight basketball circle, at the risk of contracting COVID-19, or passing it along to others.

“I was talking to (assistant) coach (Jim) Shaw in the office before I came over,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “Don’t underestimate the monotony. I’ve never been in one city this long in my life for this many consecutive days. So there’s something to look forward to, a little trip to Colorado would’ve been a chance for us to bond, get out of your daily routine a little bit. All that stuff, the mental part, we mentioned that and I could feel it in our guys.”

Without a short retreat to Boulder, the Cougars (3-0, 1-0) instead will hunker down in Pullman for another month. In the wake of Friday’s COVID-19 developments – not to mention Smith’s positive test a few weeks earlier – they know they won’t realize the full potential of a team now receiving AP Top 25 consideration if they don’t take the right precautions away from the court.

The Cougars play five more nonconference games in Pullman before their next set of Pac-12 contests, beginning with the 276th Battle of the Palouse, which will take place Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Beasley Coliseum. The rivalry game will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

With Saturday’s game scrubbed, all three varsity teams competing at WSU have canceled or postponed at least one game because of their own COVID-19 issues. Nick Rolovich’s football team had two games scrapped after nine players entered COVID-19 protocol. Kamie Ethridge has yet to see what her women’s basketball team looks like in a competition setting with opening games against Cal and Stanford called off.

After WSU’s football game at USC Sunday, Rolovich made a comment that may resonate with every college coach in the country right now.

“It feels like my day doesn’t get started until we get the test results back every day, to be honest with you,” Rolovich said.

“I think that’s the case for everybody right now and it does make it tricky to plan,” Smith said. “… It’s a challenge. You’ve got to try to tune it out. It was really stressful. I spent most of the day after on the phone, talking with Pat (Chun) and Anne (McCoy), Dr. (Sunday) Henry. You’re getting all this information and they’re trying to keep you in the loop. You want to focus on the task and coaches are routine-driven. I guarantee Rolo’s the same way.

“Like, I just want to be on my own, watch my film, talk to my staff and plan the practice. That’s kind of how it is, then you get a thunderbolt thrown in there every day.”

It’s imperative for Smith to coach the Cougars on the court, but especially this year he has to consider their mental and emotional state away from it. He called Rolovich “ahead of the curve” because of when the football team began practice in relation to the other sports, and relayed something he said during a recent meeting for coaches across all sports.

“(Rolovich) said, ‘Be there for your players,’ ” Smith said. “I think that’s accurate. Just the indecision. Mental health issues, and that’s every day, but now more so than ever before.”