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WSU Men's Basketball

Commentary: College basketball’s best story, Washington State is headed toward its first Dance since 2008

Washington State forward Jaylen Wells (0) uses a screen from center Rueben Chinyelu (20) to escape the defense of Arizona guard Kylan Boswell (4) in the first half of their Pac-12 game in Tucson.  (Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star)
By Patrick Stevens Washington Post

The argument over the best team in men’s college basketball is ongoing. Maybe it’s Connecticut. Perhaps Purdue. Possibly even Houston.

The discussion concerning the best story in the sport, at least when it comes to a team? That’s different, and Thursday brought it a bit closer to a resolution.

Yes, that’s Washington State in possession of a half-game lead in the Pac-12 after a poised 77-74 victory at Arizona. The Cougars (21-6, 12-4) completed their first season sweep of the Wildcats since 2009-10. They’re on their way to their first NCAA tournament since 2008. They might just win their first league title since 1941, when the Pacific Coast Conference had nine teams and Idaho was one of them.

Those who were paying attention to Left Coast Hoops might have seen a breakthrough coming a couple of seasons ago. And those Cougars did reach the NIT semifinals and win 22 games. But this year’s bunch was a bit more of an afterthought, getting pegged 10th in the league’s preseason poll.

So what aided this breakthrough? Plenty.

Idaho transfer Isaac Jones is the Cougars’ leader in scoring (15.7 per game) and rebounding (7.6). Division II import Jaylen Wells, who dropped 27 points on Arizona on Thursday, averaged 22.1 points at Sonoma State last year and has fit in splendidly as a floor-stretching forward who shoots 45.9 percent from three-point range.

Myles Rice, who redshirted in 2021-22 and sat out last year while receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is the top backcourt option at 15.5 points and 3.7 assists an outing. And senior Andrej Jakimovski is another capable outside shooter who provides a fourth option who averages double figures in points.

Overseeing all of this is Kyle Smith, an analytics guru who has become a specialist in winning at places not many coaches have in recent times. He won 101 games and a CIT title at Columbia, where his .552 winning percentage is the highest of any Lions coach since 1958.

In his first two years at San Francisco, he became the first coach to lead the Dons to back-to-back 20-win seasons since the program was revived in 1985. Then he did it again before leaving for Washington State.

The Cougars’ run takes place with the same backdrop of Oregon State’s football success in the fall. Conference consolidation ripped the Pac-12 asunder over the summer, with the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC each taking bits of the league. Washington State will find a temporary safe harbor in the West Coast Conference next season in most sports, including basketball.

But that’s a problem for the future Cougars. For now, they’ve won eight in a row entering Saturday’s game at Arizona State and will then close the regular season with three home games. It’s a heck of a script, and Washington State doesn’t seem anywhere close to being done with it yet.