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Kyle Smith bracing for first Apple Cup as Washington State coach

PULLMAN – Kyle Smith can admit now he was never banking on a job offer from Washington State.

In fact, the coach was already looking ahead to his next chapter at the University of San Francisco after leading the Dons to three straight 20-win seasons. Smith and his wife had committed to a long-term future in the Bay Area, recently settling into a new home.

But Pat Chun and the Cougars were offering Smith an opportunity that was hard to resist, and the athletic director had all but convinced the coach to ditch his new house, metropolitan city life in San Francisco and stability in the West Coast Conference in order to lead a challenging rebuild on the Palouse.

Smith lost sleep weighing both sides of the decision, but he and wife Katie came to a consensus by the morning, then got some reaffirmation around 6:30 a.m.

“When the job offer came through, weren’t totally expecting (it), my wife and I had just moved to a house and were up all night, just mulling it over,” Smith explained earlier this week. “Like anything, any big life decision. We were pretty much 99 percent sure we were doing it and it was still dark.”

Smith’s phone rang. Waiting anxiously on the other line was Mike Hopkins, a longtime companion who also happened to coach the team Smith would be most encouraged to beat in his new position at WSU.

“He called me and said, ‘Congratulations! Welcome to the Pac-12,’” Smith recalled. “He’s all fired up and I’m like, well I’m definitely coming now. And I just thought it was a really gracious gesture. He’s a very upbeat, positive guy.”

This calendar year, the Apple Cup will usher in brand new coaching matchups both on the hardwood and gridiron. First up is Smith vs. Hopkins.

WSU (13-10, 4-6) and UW (12-11, 2-8) play at 3 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU) at Beasley Coliseum. The Cougars will put George Raveling’s name in the rafters during a halftime celebration for the Hall of Fame coach.

Though it’s his first time coaching in the rivalry game, Smith understands the significance of the Apple Cup and its propensity to split up households. His wife, Katie, grew up in Central Washington, and one of his top assistants, Jim Shaw, was a former assistant under longtime Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. Two of his top players, CJ Elleby and Noah Williams, are proud Seattleites who had recruiting interest from UW and are familiar with a handful of Huskies both from the high school scene and AAU circuit.

So that’s probably why Smith, fairly versed in a game he’s never taken part in, felt obligated to throw a few friendly barbs at Hopkins after saluting his friendship and generosity.

“Claims that he’s a Washington guy, his family’s from Wenatchee and all that,” Smith said. “Wenatchee’s Coug country, I just want to put that out there. So his blood runs crimson and gray, so let the people in Seattle know his family are Cougars. I’ve been waiting to blast him on that. He’s a Coug. Let’s just put it out there. He’s a Coug.”

Given where both teams stand, Sunday’s matchup and the second leg on Feb. 28 in Seattle, both appear more intriguing than they did last offseason. At one point the Cougars had just three players onboard following Ernie Kent’s firing as Smith scrambled to put together a full roster. The Huskies, meanwhile, were coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance, and getting prepared to welcome two of the country’s top-10 recruits in five-star Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, not to mention four-star RaeQuan Battle.

Stewart has been one of the top freshmen in the conference and should be an NBA lottery pick, as many advertised before the year. McDaniels, however, has largely been a disappointment, leading the Pac-12 in turnovers, fouls and technical fouls, and the Huskies got more bad news a month ago when point guard and Kentucky transfer Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible, diminishing UW’s depth in the backcourt.

UW, projected to finish third in the Pac-12, sits firmly in 12th. WSU, expected to finish the season in 11th, is one spot higher in 10th place.

“He’s got them believing and playing hard,” Hopkins said of Smith in a news conference earlier this week. “They’ve got a couple of Seattle guys, Noah Williams and CJ Elleby, and these rivalry games are just incredible because everyone gets excited to play in a high-level arena against competition that is going to play at 110 percent, going at each other. I think our biggest focus right now is make sure we’re playing our best game and we’re focused as playing as one.”