Feb. 7—National pundits and "bracketologists" are starting to take notice of Washington State's surprisingly stellar men's basketball season.
The Cougars (16-6, 7-4 Pac-12) are beginning to appear in NCAA tournament bracket projections despite losing their top four scorers from last season.
ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi placed the Cougars "Last four in" in his 68-team NCAA tournament field Tuesday. He has the Cougars as a No. 11 seed facing Seton Hall in the First Four round.
CBS' Jerry Palm, another longtime bracketologist, has the Cougs placed even higher as a No. 9 seed facing Oklahoma in the traditional opening round.
Bracket predictions by The Washington Post (No. 11 seed), On3.com (No. 11) and several others also have the Cougars in their fields.
Prior to the season, if anyone would have predicted this to be WSU's best team under coach Kyle Smith, they probably would've been called crazy.
WSU was understandably picked to finish 10th in the 12-team league in the Pac-12 preseason media poll after returning zero double-digit scorers.
Instead, the Cougs sit one game back from first place in the league behind eighth-ranked Arizona, which the Cougs beat 73-70 on Jan. 13.
"You have to enjoy it and try to ... just keep the blinders on," Smith said Tuesday.
Including that win against the Wildcats, the Cougars are winners of six of their last seven games.
They're coming off a 90-87 overtime victory against Washington in an Apple Cup series game played Saturday in Seattle.
"Coming off a really good win for our program," Smith said. "Tight game and we were able to get that thing done in Seattle. Hopefully it gives us some confidence going into another tough weekend here."
If the Cougars are going to make their first NCAA tournament in Smith's five-year tenure, they'll need to keep winning.
Road contests against Oregon State (11-11, 3-8) on Thursday and Oregon (15-7, 7-4) on Saturday will wrap up a three-game road trip before they return for home contests against Cal and Stanford next week.
The scoring duo of Isaac Jones (15.8 points per game) in the post and freshman Myles Rice (15.7) on 3s and drives to the rack continue to propel the Cougs past their competition.
Senior forward Andrej Jakimovski (10.5) has settled in well to his leadership role. And the late rise of junior forward Jaylen Wells (10.3) gives WSU four double-digit scorers they can regularly rely upon.
There's still a lot of season left to be played, but Smith should be in serious consideration for Pac-12 coach of the year if his players keep up their current progression.
Smith has brought WSU to the National Invitation Tournament each of the last two years, but a trip to the NCAA tourney has eluded him.
Even 20-plus-win seasons at his previous stops at San Francisco and Columbia weren't enough to get Smith to the Big Dance. And constant roster turnover at WSU has been hard to overcome.
But every win or loss matters and a couple of slip ups across their final nine games could have the Cougs headed back to the NIT instead of the Big Dance.
Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2260, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @StephanSports.