The Washington State Cougars men’s basketball team has been astonishingly bad the last couple of years. In fact, they’ve been subpar ever since Klay Thompson departed at the end of the 2010-11 season.
However, this year could be the beginning of something interesting, maybe a ray of sunshine on a desolate program.
It appears that new Head Coach Kyle Smith has brought hope back to the WSU hoops, and sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.
This year’s team by no means got off to a promising start. They were 3-4 to open the season with losses to Omaha, Santa Clara, and Colorado State. But the inexperienced group found a way to fight back winning their final six games of their non-conference schedule, boosting their record to 9-4 before Pac-12 play began.
And while their six-game winning streak admittedly came against some of the worst teams in the country, the bottom line is that they beat who they were matched up against.
As a casual fan, it was hard to find any difference between last year’s team and this year’s, other than the fact that they were actually trying on defense.
But then, conference play started and it quickly became apparent that this group has some fight in them. Smith emphasizes smart, blue-collar basketball and his team is starting to follow their leader’s identity.
In their first Pac-12 game, the Cougs forced USC into 20 turnovers.
If WSU hadn’t shot an abysmal 27.8 percent from the field, they could’ve won the conference opener against a more talented opponent. Pair this with the injury to Jeff Pollard who is the Cougars’ best post defender, and WSU had a real chance to pull off the upset.
They ended up losing the game by nine points, which is a remarkable feat considering they barely made one-fourth of their shots.
In their next outing, they faced UCLA in a game that appeared to be a winnable contest for the Cougs. But as the contest went on, the same old script unfolded.
The Bruins held approximately a 10-point lead throughout most of the matchup and looked like they were going to cruise to victory. But then with about ten minutes left, Smith changed the defense from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone, and UCLA slowly started to deteriorate, forcing continuous bad shots.
The Cougars’ offense found their rhythm for the first time since conference play began, and suddenly a competitive event was taking place in Pullman.
For the first time in over five years, there was energy in the stands. Fans were cheering, people were standing, and babies were smiling. And while all this should be expected inside a basketball arena, it hasn’t been the norm in Beasley Coliseum for quite some time. The dead silence of Cougar ineptitude transitioned into a real basketball game, and it was beautiful to watch.
As the back-and-forth contest entered the final minutes, UCLA recaptured the lead and looked like they were going to escape with a victory. But on the final possession of the contest, WSU’s star player CJ Elleby hit a game-tying three-pointer to send the matchup into overtime, where the Cougs were able to rally and seal the win.
This is just one game, but the way they clawed and scrapped their way back into the contest could be indicative of a change on the Palouse. A basketball team with spirit and a will-not-die attitude.
The chances of the Cougars becoming a top team in the conference is highly improbable, but the chances of them playing in some competitive matchups is now realistic.
WSU is suddenly a fun group to watch and their fans should be truly grateful for the work Smith has done in such a short time. They face California tonight (the game will be over when you read this) and believe it or not the Cougs could actually have a winning record in Pac-12 play.
Somebody crack a Busch Light, this ish just got real.