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No. 7 seed Washington State Cougars are ready for the Madness as they take on 10th-seeded Drake

Mar. 21—From the wheat fields of the Palouse to the cornfields of Nebraska, the Washington State men's basketball team is hoping for some March magic today in Omaha.

The No. 7 seed Cougars (24-9) open play in the NCAA tournament against 10th-seeded Drake (28-6) at 7:05 p.m. Pacific at CHI Health Center Arena.

It's WSU's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.

"It's been a while for all of us, but it's exciting to be here," Smith said Wednesday. "It's an honor. I told the international guys when we recruited them, it's like the World Cup every year in March for us. That's how people follow it, everyone's got a bracket, so until you're in it you don't really know, but it's awesome to be in it."

Here's what to know before the madness begins:

Scouting Drake

The Bulldogs may be a midmajor program, but they're no strangers to the bright lights of March Madness.

Drake is appearing in its second straight NCAA tournament and its third in the last four years.

The Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions are paced by MVC player of the year Tucker Devries, whose 21.8 points per game rank No. 6 among all NCAA Division I scorers.

Smith took to calling the 6-foot-7 Devries "Baby Bird" after NBA legend Larry Bird, who coincidentally is also the namesake for the MVC player of the year trophy, which Devries has won twice.

"We've called (him) 'Baby Bird, Little Larry,'" Smith said of the guard/forward. "He's a really good scorer, then they have really good guys that fit with him as far as guys that can bang 3s, and guard their position and they share the ball, so they're a pretty complete team."

Drake's other stalwarts are junior guard Atin Wright (13.9 points per game), freshman Kevin Overton (11.4) and senior forward Darnell Brodie (11.3).

The Bulldogs' best wins this season came against Nevada (72-53) and MVC regular-season champ Indiana State twice, 89-78 in the regular season and 84-80 in the conference championship.

Keys for the Cougars

WSU has been led all season by its "big four:" senior forward Isaac Jones (15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds per game), freshman guard Myles Rice (15.1 points, 3.9 assists per game), junior forward Jaylen Wells (12.2 points, 42% from 3) and senior forward Andrej Jakimovski (10.0 points per game).

The ragtag group all took different journeys to WSU and they each have an underdog story in their own right: Jones an Idaho transfer and former juco player who had no offers out of high school, Wells from the Division II ranks, Rice who hadn't played basketball in two years and Jakimovski from the small country of North Macedonia.

Together, they're the leaders for a WSU squad making its first trip to March Madness in 16 years.

The Cougars at one point this season won eight straight games and they beat perennial-power Arizona twice during the regular season.

But WSU at times struggled down the stretch, despite finishing the season second in the Pac-12 Conference in its final season as a basketball conference.

Jones has sometimes taken a while to get rolling in games and Rice has not made a 3-point shot in over a month.

Still, the Cougars have the size — they boast one of the tallest starting lineups in the NCAA — and athleticism to win a game or two in March Madness.

"It feels great to be in this tournament and we've gotta keep doing what we do," Rice said.

The last time they were there

It's been 16 years since the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 under coach Tony Bennett in 2008.

Cougs made back-to-back tourney appearances in '07 and '08 before Bennett bounced for the University of Virginia, where he won a national championship in 2019 and made a name for himself as one of college basketball's best modern coaches.

That 2008 WSU team beat Winthrop and Notre Dame in the first and second rounds before falling to No. 1 seed North Carolina. The team started the season 14-0 and finished with a 26-9 record.

Those Cougars featured center Aron Baynes, a lengthy Australian who went on to win the 2014 NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs. Baynes played eight seasons in the NBA and is still playing professionally overseas despite suffering a serious spinal cord injury after a fall in 2020.

Smith also made a trip to the NCAA tourney long before he ended up in Pullman. WSU's current coach was an assistant coach on a Saint Mary's (Calif.) team that went to the Big Dance 14 years ago.

Quote of note

"We have a size advantage but they're the No. 1 defensive-rebounding team in the country as far as percentage they give up, so that just tells me they have really good habits, really well coached." — WSU coach Kyle Smith on the Drake Bulldogs

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