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WSU Men's Basketball

How can WSU knock off Stanford and extend its win streak to seven?

Washington State head coach Kyle Smith gives instructions during the first half Thursday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Kyle Smith is full of surprises. Washington State’s head coach has walked a fine line this winter, encouraging his players to enjoy the attention they’re getting for their sterling season, helping them understand the gravity of the situation and how long it’s been since the Cougars were this good.

He has cautioned them to avoid letting it get to their heads, though. WSU, bound for the NCAA Tournament if it started this weekend, could just as easily fall off the bubble with a few bad losses.

Which is why on Thursday evening, shortly after Washington State dispatched visiting California 84-65, Smith took the podium to say he had already moved on to Stanford, which comes to Pullman for a 3 p.m. Saturday meeting with WSU. Not a half hour after the game, he had started thinking about the challenge the Cardinal will provide.

“I’m on to the next,” Smith said .

Washington State (19-6, 10-4 Pac-12) defeated Stanford 89-75 on Jan. 18 in the Bay Area. Redshirt freshman guard Myles Rice torched the Cardinal for 35 points, a school record for a freshman. Stanford showed him single coverage all night, and Rice took advantage, getting to the basket at will and knocking down a season-best five 3-pointers.

Two days later, Rice managed 16 points in an overtime loss to California, which threw multiple defenders at him, playing ball screens in a way that prevented him from using them. He was clearly at the top of the Golden Bears’ scouting report, the kind of treatment he is receiving the more he shows his capabilities.

On Saturday, Stanford might not give Rice the same opportunities he enjoyed a month ago. The Cardinal, who have lost three of their past four, might try forcing someone else to beat them.

The good news for WSU, a half-game back of the lead in the Pac-12 standings, is the team now has a guy that fits that bill. Wing Jaylen Wells isn’t just shooting 44% on 3-pointers, third among conference players who attempt more than three per game. He has also evolved into a guy who can create off the dribble on the rare occasion when Rice is off – or when he’s getting blanketed by defenses.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that development. Rice, the team’s leading scorer with 16 points per game, has gained the respect of the conference. Smothering defenses have followed, like Cal’s, like Washington’s in the second half of the Feb. 3 game. As Wells improves, so does WSU.

Here are Wells’ past five games:

•Win over Cal: 12 points, 1 for 4 on 3-pointers, three rebounds

•Win over Oregon: 13 points, 4 for 4 on 3-pointers, four rebounds

•Win over Oregon State: 24 points, 6 for 8 on 3-pointers, seven rebounds

•Win over Washington: 19 points, 7 for 14 from the field, 0 for 3 on 3-pointers, one rebound

Win over Colorado: 17 points, 2 for 6 on 3-pointers, 10 rebounds

Here’s another development that might figure prominently in Saturday’s game: Oscar Cluff’s defense. Cluff has split starting duties with fellow center Rueben Chinyelu. Smith has often subbed in Cluff when he needs offense at the center spot, and Chinyelu when he needs defense at it, taking advantage of Chinyelu’s raw athleticism and length.

With Cluff’s outing against Cal – four points, three rebounds, four blocks – he might be providing Smith with both. That matters because Cluff, a junior college transfer, has more experience than true freshman Chinyelu. If Cluff’s showing Thursday is any indication, he might be in line for more minutes and the Cougs might be in line for more production on both ends of the court.

“I don’t know if the common observer can understand how good Oscar Cluff was defensively,” Smith said after Thursday’s game. “With those four blocks, he’s like a safety in the defense, telling people where to go, whether we’re man or zone. Did a really good job there.”

Cluff and Chinyelu will face a different challenge against Stanford, though. When WSU won last month, the Cardinal played without the services of Spencer Jones, a 6-foot-7 forward who sat out with an injury. He has since returned to action. He managed just two points in Stanford’s win over Washington on Thursday, but in his previous two outings he put up 15 points apiece – and in his first game back, on Jan. 20, he scored 30 points in a victory over UW.

Washington State center Rueben Chinyelu dunks under coverage from California guard Jaylon Tyson during the first half Thursday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State center Rueben Chinyelu dunks under coverage from California guard Jaylon Tyson during the first half Thursday at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

That changes the strategy for Smith’s group in a meaningful way. With Jones out last time, WSU forward Isaac Jones took control around the basket, erupting for 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting from the floor. Can he produce the same way with Jones guarding him?

“He’s a pretty big cog in their wheel,” Smith said of Jones. “They’re even harder to guard. They just spread you out.”

The Cougs will have to contend with the production of Maxime Raynaud, a 7-1 center from France. He scored 22 points in the teams’ previous meeting. In his past four games, he’s totaled 19, 25, 20 and 29 points. He’s a load inside and outside, where he has hit a 3-pointer in each of his past five games, including a 5-for-6 effort in a loss to Arizona.

“Oscar and Rueben are gonna have to really do a good job on him,” Smith said. “He’s an emerging talent, to say the least.”

The better news for Washington State involves Stanford freshman guard Kanaan Carlyle. He singed WSU’s defense for 31 points last month. In his past four games, he’s scored seven, 10, two and three points. He has made 4 of 18 3-pointers in that stretch. He might be cooling off – but the Cougs will have to make sure of that .

In terms of the NCAA Tournament, this would be a Quad 3 win for Washington State, which has collected four of those, including Thursday’s over California. A win wouldn’t do much for WSU. A loss would be costly. The Cougars are 12-1 at home, though.