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WSU Men's Basketball

Dave Boling: Washington State waited a long time for this NCAA Tournament. The Cougs will be back again soon.

By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review

OMAHA, Neb. – The Washington State Cougars didn’t just arrive. They kicked the door in and pushed around the furniture, making themselves at home.

Even with a loss to Iowa State on Saturday in the Round of 32, this two-game NCAA Tournament appearance, to cap a 25-win season, dramatically changes the national perception of WSU basketball.

To what may be a significant extent, the program has been rebuilt and rebranded. It’s legit.

And even though nothing is guaranteed, with the level of manpower churn across college basketball, this experience should have a long-term positive effect for the WSU program.

Even the 67-56 loss to Iowa State re-enforced the team’s image. ISU was the No. 4-ranked team in the country, one that a week ago beat top-ranked Houston Cougars 69-41 – holding them to 32 points below their season scoring average.

But WSU was tied with ISU at half, and within one point until 14 minutes remained in the game.

“I wasn’t aware of this,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said, “but people said we didn’t belong (in the NCAAs); we proved we belonged, to say the least.”

In a vague but accurate assessment, Smith added: “We just didn’t play well enough to win, to be honest.

The Cougars’ defense certainly belonged, holding ISU to 31% shooting in the first half and 40% for the game.

I’m tempted to write that they played like junkyard dogs on defense. But that’s overused and maybe not even enough to capture the fierceness. They were more like junkyard dogs with unresolved anger issues. Acutely possessive and protective.

But Iowa State was pretty snarling on defense, too. The stats sheet revealed a key disparity: ISU outscored the Cougs 21-4 in points off turnovers.

A flurry of hot perimeter shooting late in the game helped ISU pull away.

On the whole, it was an excellent effort by the Cougars, with just not quite the level of execution to match it.

So, the Cougs go home, and regardless of whatever happens next, they elevated the program.

Absolutely. The pedigree and reputation get a boost by being on those millions of brackets. Of getting into the second round. Of pushing Iowa State harder than Houston and Baylor just did.

Think of the doors that open now. Who knows how much that will make a difference when it comes to knocking on recruits’ doors.

How much will that NCAA appearance and recognition come into play when it comes to the transfer portal? Both coming and going.

Maybe a potential defector will have second thoughts about staying. Maybe a hot prospect looking for a new team was watching the game against ISU and now decides to listen when a Cougars scout calls.

Donations. Gate receipts. NIL opportunities. Everything should get a bump.

Cougars fans are always Cougars fans. That’s a curious quality of WSU alums and adherents.

But what about the fence-sitters and the Sunshine Cougs, who might otherwise clap for the teams but not be lured into substantial support? They’re sure a lot more likely to chip in for a team that makes it to the second round of the NCAAs.

Think I’m just making this up?

As I sit down to start typing this column in the media room, Smith sits across from me and begins chatting with associate head coach Jim Shaw.

He seems philosophical about the loss, and pretty upbeat. I mentioned his team’s 25 wins, and he seemed surprised that was the number. I suggested that this NCAA appearance would go a long way to rebranding the “franchise” identity, and help luring talent to Pullman.

He started looking at his phone, pretty obviously having a ton of texts of condolences and congratulations.

He laughed, and offered me an example of my theory.

“I’m getting texts already about recruits,” he said.

“From scouts?”

“No, from players, they’re recruiting themselves.”

Can I use that?

“Sure, go ahead,” he said. “That’s pretty sweet.”

Yes, Saturday’s loss didn’t get them to the Sweet 16, but it was pretty darn sweet, nonetheless.