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Washington State men's basketball gets ready for the lights of Vegas for the Pac-12 Conference tournament

Mar. 14—When asked to pick one word to describe this Washington State men's basketball season, coach Kyle Smith picked "surreal."

He's hoping to continue adding to this season's surreal story this week at the Pac-12 tournament.

The second-seeded and 22nd-ranked Cougars (23-8, 14-6) begin tournament play against 10th-seeded Stanford (14-17, 8-12) at 6 p.m. today (Pac-12 Networks) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Cardinal defeated Cal 87-76 in overtime Wednesday to get to the quarterfinals matchup against the Cougs.

"Really excited for the opportunity to go play in this tournament," Smith said. "I think our team has really done a great job of getting our minds right for this."

How they got there

The storyline all season has been WSU's rise from a team picked to finish in the Pac-12 gutter to a team that not only finished second in the league but also defeated regular-season champion and sixth-ranked Arizona twice.

Call it a successful final season in the Pac-12 as we know it regardless of what happens to WSU in March.

But they're hoping for more.

The Cougars were hot down the stretch, winning 10 of their final 12 games. But those two losses came in their final four games, including a 74-68 letdown to Washington to close the regular season.

During their nearly full week off, the team took a trip to Zeppos in Pullman for some bowling and an opportunity to reset mentally.

Smith said it's important for the team to keep the "joy" and focus on having fun this week while blocking out the distractions that come with the bright lights of Las Vegas.

Regardless of what happens in Vegas, the Cougars will hear their names called for the NCAA tournament during Selection Sunday this weekend.

"We're just talking about 'Hey, these two weeks, we've got to enjoy them,'" Smith said. "There's a chance to make memories. You don't want to blow it. You may not win, but you want to make sure you have the best chance to do that."

Cougars' strengths

WSU brings three all-conference players into postseason play, including Pac-12 freshman of the year Myles Rice and fellow first-team honoree Isaac Jones.

When those two are playing well, the Cougars are tough to beat. Rice averages 15.3 points per game from his point guard spot. Forward Jones is a touch better at 15.4 points per contest.

Jones also ranks fourth in the Pac-12 and 28th nationally in field-goal percentage (58%) and fourth in the league in rebounding (7.6 per game).

WSU also boasts one of the tallest starting lineups in the NCAA: Rice (6-foot-3), Jones (6-9), forward Andrej Jakimovski (6-8), forward and Pac-12-honorable-mention Jaylen Wells (6-8) and either Oscar Cluff or Rueben Chinyelu, who both are 6-11 centers.

"The team that wins (the tournament) or keeps it going, usually has someone that's going to have to step up," Smith said. "Some great individual performances or somebody off the bench. So it'll happen. We'll be ready."

Scouting Stanford

Despite finishing 10th in the Pac-12, Stanford owns an impressive 100-82 win over then-No. 4 Arizona on Dec. 31 — a sign it is not to be underestimated.

WSU beat Stanford 89-75 at home and 72-59 on the road during the regular season.

The Cardinal are paced by 7-1 center Maxime Raynaud (15.6 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) and the league's top 3-pointer shooter in forward Brandon Angel (12.9 points per game).

Raynaud is second in the Pac-12 in rebounding (9.7) and fifth in field-goal percentage (57%).

Angel connects on 46.6% of his 3-point attempts.

"It's going to be fun," Smith said. "They're going to be hard to guard."

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