LAS VEGAS – Kyle Smith was a 39-year-old assistant at Saint Mary’s – three coaching stops and 11 years removed from where he is now – when Washington State last won a game in the Pac-12/10 Conference Tournament.
He’s taken a special interest in learning about WSU’s hardwood history and even been immersed in it, taking part in the rafter-hanging ceremonies the Cougars held for Klay Thompson and George Raveling earlier this season.
If Smith has really done his homework, he’d know the past two men to hold his position never won at the Pac-12/10 Tournament and he’d also know the Cougars have never won a game seeded ninth or worse. They’ve lost four of the last 10 by just two points and were clobbered in three others – 85-59 against Colorado in 2015, 80-56 against Colorado in 2016 and 84-51 against Oregon last season.
Those facts don’t bode well for 11th-seeded WSU (15-16), which faces sixth-seeded Colorado (21-10) in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena, nor does the first meeting against the Buffaloes – a 21-point loss in Boulder.
“I’ll bring it up to our guys, actually, it’s something that hasn’t been done in 11 years,” Smith said. “Oh, my goodness. We’ve got something there, that’ll be good. Any opportunity to make some history or change some history is good.”
A new coach usually infuses new optimism and the 2019-20 Cougars have already succeeded where many of their predecessors haven’t.
Of the past 10 WSU teams to fall short in the first round of the conference tournament, seven finished with fewer than 15 wins – the team’s current total – and three didn’t exceed 11.
The Buffaloes, who’ve lost four straight, are nine-point favorites against the Cougars, losers of two consecutive games.
At times, injury has been the toughest foe for WSU. The Cougars didn’t have forward Tony Miller or guard Marvin Cannon available when they met Colorado in Boulder this season. The Buffaloes’ Tyler Bey, an All-Pac-12 forward, didn’t play either.
“I think it’s just being a little thin and playing altitude,” Smith said of the first meeting. “They’re just really solid, sound. We’ve got to do a good job on (McKinley) Wright. I think that’s important. He had 10 assists last time. You’ve got to make it harder on him where he can’t just go wherever he needs to and find guys and open shots in transition.”
Nine players from the roster who started the season have missed a combined 76 games this season for WSU due to injury or illness, including transfers Deion James (heart infection) and Jaylen Shead (leg), who’ve missed 45 games since being ruled out before Pac-12 play.
Health may also be a factor for the Cougars this time. Senior forward Jeff Pollard missed both games during the team’s trip to Arizona with a broken finger, but participated in Monday’s practice. Smith said the swelling in Pollard’s finger is down, but the fourth-year post may still need surgery when the tournament is over.
“We’ll get Jeff back and his leadership,” Smith said. “I don’t know how effective he’ll be, but it’ll be a little like (injured) Willis Reed (for the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals) walking out of the tunnel for our guys.”
Pollard may be nursing a sore hand, but he should have a pep in his step. The Bountiful, Utah, native got engaged to girlfriend Abby Harper on Sunday, carrying out the marriage proposal at Beasley Coliseum.
“When we win the tournament, they’re going to go ahead and elope right here,” Smith joked. “That part I made up, but I can see it happening.”
Rest assured, the Cougars are taking this one win at a time. Four would be sweet, but even one would be historic.