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For the Cougs, breaking a decade-long drought means pacing themselves -- starting in the Bay Area

Jan. 17—PULLMAN — Everywhere Kyle Smith looks, he sees something about his Washington State team's NCAA Tournament drought. His 10-year-old son, Luke, likes to check out the NCAA NET rankings. At team breakfasts, trainers discuss the team's tournament chances.

"It's unavoidable," Smith said.

So it goes when your team is trying to return to that kind of national prominence for the first time in more than a decade. The Cougars' last appearance in the NCAA Tournament came in 2008, when Tony Bennett guided the team there, an era so far in the past that it nearly predates some of these current Cougars.

The NCAA Tournament topic has become more popular. The Cougars have won three of their past four games, including last weekend's upset of then-No. 8 Arizona. Ahead of their road matchups with Stanford and California this weekend, they have a chance to add two more quality wins to their resume.

For Smith and the Cougars, it's a tricky balance to strike. How do you acknowledge the gravity of what's at stake — and its importance to the fans — without losing focus on the steps to get there? The easy answer is to keep winning. The harder one involves pulling off the balancing act.

Step one for WSU (12-5, 3-3 Pac-12) is to beat Stanford on Thursday night. In the Cardinal, the Cougars get a red-hot team. Stanford (9-7, 4-2) leads the conference in 3-pointers made per game, hitting around nine per contest. The Cardinal are making them at a 38.5% clip, second in the conference — and No. 17 nationally.

Stanford's Kanaan Carlyle has scored 34 points in his past two games. Brandon Angel has hit eight of his past 10 3-point attempts. Freshman Andrej Stojakovic — the son of NBA player Peja — has hit four of his past nine.

In simpler terms, Stanford takes smart 3-point shots and, more often than not, cashes in.

"They're just really hard to guard," Smith said. "They've got some experience in their frontcourt, that's really good with (Michale) Jones, (Spencer) Jones and Angel and (Maxime) Raynaud.

"And then they've added some really good guards from where they were last year. The addition of Carlyle I think is taking them to another level. ... That's a freshman — he's just a creative playmaker, scorer, plays so hard, that he's different than the rest of their guys and makes him that much more difficult to deal with."

The Cougars have had good luck in Stanford. They've won their past two road games there. Their last loss came in January 2020, Smith's first season leading the program.

Cal is off to a slower start to the season. The Golden Bears are 6-11 overall and 2-4 in conference play. Under first-year coach Mark Madsen, who took over after Cal went 3-29 last season, Cal has won two of its past three games, taking down UCLA and Colorado. It hosts Washington on Thursday night.

Some Golden Bears names to know include leading scorer Jaylon Tyson, who is averaging 21 points per game on 38% shooting from beyond the arc; forward Fardaws Aimaq, who averages a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds per game; and Northern Arizona transfer Jalen Cone, who is scoring 14 points per game.

The Cougars are figuring out some things, though, which may matter more than the opponents they're playing. One particularly important development has to do with their starting lineups. They've started wing Jaylen Wing in each of their past two games and won both.

That starting five — Myles Rice, Wells, Andrej Jakimovski, Isaac Jones and Rueben Chinyelu/Oscar Cluff — works because of the spacing. Rice, Wells and Jakimovski command the respect of defenders on the perimeter, which opens up space for Chinyelu, Jones and Cluff.

That has paved the way for Jones to impose his will around the basket. He's had scoring outings of 26 and 24 points, respectively, using a wide-open lane to maneuver around defenders and finish at the rim.

It begs the question: How much of Jones' production is a product of the increased floor spacing with Wells on the perimeter?

"About 80%," Smith estimated. "It's really significant. Isaac fell off the scout a little bit. He didn't have a great game in the Oregon games. Maybe they adjusted a little bit. ... But I do think Jaylen is an aggressive scorer, and his ability to stretch the floor really complements Isaac. It helps him a lot. Isaac is a willing passer, too."