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MARCH MADNESS: WSU picked as No. 7 seed for NCAA tourney

Mar. 18—PULLMAN — Washington State men's basketball coach Kyle Smith joked he worried "every day" he'd never make it to the NCAA tournament after a good friend one time told him he didn't want Smith to be the "best coach to never go" to the March Madness event.

On Sunday, any worries were officially put to rest.

Cheers erupted at a watch party at Beasley Coliseum when Washington State was announced as a No. 7 seed for its first NCAA tournament since 2008.

WSU will face 10th-seeded Drake (28-6) of the Missouri Valley Conference in its first trip to college basketball's premier tourney since Tony Bennett led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 — 16 years ago.

WSU (24-9) will continue its improbable season at 7 p.m. Thursday (truTV) in Omaha, Neb., against the Bulldogs. The Cougars' trip to the Big Dance comes after they were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 in the preseason. Instead, they finished second in the league.

"It's exciting ... I'm used to filling out a bracket. Now being in that bracket is a crazy feeling," said WSU junior Jaylen Wells.

The Cougars seemed to be on the verge of making the NCAA tournament at several points the last five seasons since Smith took over a program that had fallen on hard times in 2019.

Smith's Cougars twice went to the National Invitation Tournament — considered the second-best tourney after the NCAA tournament — including a trip to the NIT semifinals in 2022.

But each year, WSU seemed to lose most of its key players, whether it be to graduation, the transfer portal or a professional career, like Mouhamed Gueye to the Atlanta Hawks after last season.

That made it hard for WSU to get over the hump and make it to March Madness.

It seemed like WSU might be in full rebuild mode after returning zero double-digit scorers going into the year.

But Smith and the Cougs thought they might have something special. Players like Idaho transfer Isaac Jones (15.3 points per game), freshman phenom guard Myles Rice (15.2) and NCAA Division II transfer Wells (14.6) meshed with returners like senior forward Andrej Jakimovski (10.2).

It was just the right pieces of the puzzle for the Cougars to beat teams like perennial-power Arizona (twice) and NCAA-tourney-regular Boise State in a season that included an eight-game winning streak in January and February.

"It's neat to see these guys put the work in," Smith said. "They know how hard it is and to earn this opportunity, it's been terrific. Couldn't be happier for this group."

Jakimovski, a 6-foot-8 senior from North Macedonia who was WSU's lone returning starter, said he always believed this moment would come.

"It's a special feeling," Jakimovski said. "As a fourth-year guy, to be able to make it to the NCAA tournament means a lot. But honestly, I saw the vision from the beginning from my freshman year. I saw something in the coaching staff that I thought we can make something special.

"Obviously, it takes time ... (but) to be able to play in the best tournament in the world means a lot to this program for sure."

Drake is a team that will be no slouch. The Bulldogs may be a midmajor program, but they've now been to the NCAA tournament in three of the last four years.

"It helps (them) being there before," Smith said.

The Cougars won't have much time to enjoy their tournament appearance.

Minutes after dancing in celebration and signing autographs for Coug fans who attended the watch party, Rice talked about what's ahead.

"The records are 0-0 now, so we have to go out there and attack each game with the mindset that it's win or go home because that's what it is," Rice said, "and be able to handle our business no matter what."

Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2260, swiebe@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @StephanSports.