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Dave Boling: Kyle Smith got Washington State's groove back, now they're dancing into the Round of 32

Mar. 21—OMAHA, Neb. — Welcome back, Washington State Cougars.

Back to the NCAA Tournament after 16 years, and to the round of 32 with a 66-61 win over Drake.

More specifically, welcome back you Cougars, the ones who rolled to a sweep of highly ranked Arizona this season, the ones who finished second in the Pacific-12 Conference. The No. 25-ranked team in the country this season.

Thursday's reversion to form was most obviously symbolized just 2:43 into the game when freshman point guard Myles Rice confidently stepped into a 3-point hoop to break a month-long shooting drought from long distance.

Maybe that cleansed the Cougars from some manner of hexing mojo, because this looked like the real Cougars.

As they have much of the season, the Cougs relied on the interior power of graduate forward Isaac Jones. Jones, battling inside against Drake's 275-pound center Darnell Brodie, finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks.

Junior wing Jaylen Wells provided the perimeter scoring punch, finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds.

Midway through the second half, it all seemed to be slipping away from the Cougs, though.

In heavy traffic, Jones missed a couple putbacks and Wells misfired on a 3-pointer only to see Drake come down and net a hoop to put them up 50-44.

But the Cougars hadn't won 24 games before this one by giving up.

Jones continued to battle and score inside. Before the game, for something like five minutes, he set up at the low block on the left side of the lane and practiced taking a step toward the middle and lofting little jump hooks.

He scored with that exact move during the second half.

A couple big plays down the stretch came from Isaiah Watts, he of the great Northwest basketball lineage. Watts drained a huge 3-pointer with 1:45 left in the game, and later added a pair of clutch free throws.

As it has much of the season, the Cougars' defense set the tone.

Coming into this game, Drake (favored by 1.5 points) was riding the reputation of guard Tucker DeVries. DeVries had played great in big games, leading the nation in scoring against Quad 1 opponents, with more than 25 points a game.

Checked tightly by several Cougs in different situations, DeVries was held to 14 points on 18 attempts.

The reward is a Saturday date against Iowa State, an 82-65 first-round winner over South Dakota State.

The Cyclones are ranked No. 4 in the nation after having finished second in the Big 12 regular season.

The Cougs now extend an historic season.

The coach, Kyle Smith, was named the conference Coach of the Year, and Rice won the Freshman of the Year award.

The 24 wins before Thursday was the most since the last two NCAA Tournament teams of 2007 and 2008 (26 wins). Then you'd have to go back to 1941 to find more wins, when the Jack Friel-coached teams won 26 games on the way to the 1941 NCAA final.

Surely none of the recent teams have had to come from being such a collection of almost total strangers. Because of the roster reconstruction, the Cougs were predicted to finish 10th in the Pac-12.

The assimilation took a while, as they lost four of six in midwinter but took off in January with an upset of Arizona (No. 8) and then reeled off 10 wins in 11 games to shoot up the conference standings.

It was more than just the number of wins, but the nature of the team. They were fun and exciting. They lured fans back to Beasley.

No one can know whether this is a spasm of competitiveness that will unravel or if it's sustainable. At the very least, they got a taste of what it's like to be competitive at the highest level. And from the looks of it, it was liked by all involved.

Success can be addictive.

And they get a shot at another dose Saturday.