As Will Burghardt pulled the trigger on an improbable 3-point attempt in the closing minutes of Washington State’s beatdown of Oregon on Saturday, I stood in anticipation of what would be the perfect capper to the perfect game.
Given everything that had gone wrong this season for the Cougs, it might have been more poetic if the shot had bricked off the iron. Nothing can ever seem to be too good for WSU, which has seen its highest aspirations this season sabotaged by sickness and injury.
But on this day, the ball swished through the net, the crowd roared, Burghardt and his buddy Ryan Rapp hugged on their way down the floor, and I danced in the aisle in a way that I had not at a sporting event for a couple of years. (You might see it if you look reaaaaal close!)
It was a reminder — along with so much else that happened that day — of the things that are actually good about college sports.
No, the Cougars are not on track to make their return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008. I maintain that they might be able to wedge their way into the bubble conversation with wins over UCLA and USC to reach the finals of the Pac-12 tournament — depending on other results — but making the 68-team field probably is going to require winning the whole thing like Oregon State did last season.
Being on the outside looking in is somehow really disappointing to a lot of our fans. I always hesitate to overgeneralize as to the extent of these feelings among our fanbase, but it’s worth noting that WSU felt compelled to turn off replies to its tweets during the first game against Oregon State — in which the Cougs trailed the lowly Beavers by 12 before winning — and that Kyle Smith took a detour during his postgame news conference on Saturday to scold fans who have gone after individual players online:
“Our guys were getting pelted on social media and stuff, and I said ‘Whoa, time out,’ ” Smith said. “That’s why I don’t have it. I said, ‘Those guys need to go — they don’t know, they don’t know how hard it is.’ You’re playing nine, 10 games in 24 days, and you’ve got alleged fans that would have the nerve to DM our guys — I don’t even know what DM is, but — they have the nerve to do that and just ... there’s just, there’s sick people, you know, they got nothing. They don’t understand what it takes to build something and build confidence. So happy for our guys, but that’s not why we play — they play for each other.”
That toxicity has been so baffling to me. Having been around to witness WSU’s ebbs and flows in men’s basketball for the past 25 years or so, there’s just nothing in our history to suggest that an “NCAA tournament or bust” mentality was ever a prudent expectation in the third year of a rebuild of this particular program.
Some schools can rebuild quickly. Those schools are not schools such as WSU that have made just six (!) NCAA appearances in their history and posted just 13 winning conference records in the past 54 seasons. Look through our history. Anyone in WSU’s modern history who actually rebuilt the program took at least four years to turn the ship around. George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson, Dick/Tony Bennett ... all posted their first winning records in year four.
Kyle Smith did that in year three. And it bums me out that so many seem unable to take joy in it, because they’re really missing out on the construction of something special.
My own personal standard for most sports things is “just be fun.” And when things can’t be fun, at least “be interesting.” Ultimately, sports are entertainment, which means there’s truly no greater sin to me than being bad and boring — which is exactly the space WSU basketball has occupied for so many of my nearly 30 years as a Coug.
The tail end of Kevin Eastman ... all of Paul Graham ... the tail end of Ken Bone ... all of Ernie Kent ... soooo much bad, boring, uninteresting basketball. And because I’m a sucker who loves WSU and loves hoops, I always watched as much of it as I could, including the epic 1-11 start to Pac-12 play in 2018 that led to this, and the 4-18 finish to 2019 that finally led Pat Chun to eat the rest of Kent’s unconscionable contract.
I say this not to play some sort of fan superiority card — I’m aware that this probably reflects a problem on my part, if we’re being honest — but to provide you some context for the way that I view this season.
Winning big is clearly the most fun thing when it comes to any sports team, but there are other ways a program can be fun and interesting. In the case of this team, it’s watching it navigate and conquer the growing pains of a rebuild with a roster that is still primarily young and promising. When you can see year-over-year growth at the outset that results in unexpected competitiveness before transitioning into winning more games than you lose, that’s a hell of a fun thing for someone whose experience as a fan has primarily languished in perpetual disappointment and hopelessness.
I obviously hoped the team could make that leap into the tournament, but I never expected it, which is why my primary emotion was always disappointment or sadness rather than anger or bitterness with each successive loss. It was always going to be a tall task, and while it’s fair to point out that they might have done it had they not blown a bunch of games late, I think it’s also fair to point out that teams that aren’t quite good enough for the tournament ... lose a bunch of games.
“I gotta remind our guys all the time that we had some expectations that maybe were unfair,” Smith said. “We had some good recruits and got some publicity and it’s hard. I was like, look, I gotta remind you guys we really haven’t done anything yet.
“We’ve taken it from, whatever, the 205th best program to 120th to about 80th, and our goals would be top 50, top 40. ... Just the way the schedule fell out, I think that maybe we’re ahead of schedule.”
Part of the frustration is that they were clearly so close this year, something Smith even acknowledges.
“We kicked away some games that would have put us probably in the tournament, to be honest,” Smith said, “but it’s hard to do. There’s been a lot of good things and I just think we’re building.”
But the team is still potentially on track to make an NIT appearance, something that would be huge for this particular program at this particular moment in its progression. Even if the Cougs never found another gear to make a real push toward the tournament, they also never cracked under the weight of frustrating losses, something that’s encouraging for the foundation of the program under Smith. They’re still improving; the offense in particular has rebounded nicely from the depths of that five-game losing streak.
Thirty games is such a small sample size for a basketball season, and there’s a sense that if these guys could have just played together — minus the sickness, minus the injuries (have you seen Dishon Jackson’s impact?!?) — maybe this all would have turned out just a little differently.
“If this (season) is going to June, I feel like we’d win a national championship — which we might anyway — but ... I think we keep getting better,” Smith said. “I feel good. I’ve been saying we’ve been getting better — we’ve had some blips, and it’s never a straight line — but I feel like we’ve been getting better and (the win over Oregon) is a great endorsement.”
That’s why I want this season to keep going, even if there’s no NCAA tournament at the end of the rainbow. Jackson is back and exerting his influence on games. Noah Williams is playing his best ball of the year, breaking out of the slump that plagued him through the first 20 games. TJ Bamba is getting healthy again. It would be incredibly fun to see if this team can get on some sort of roll to Madison Square Garden.
There are still moments of joy and fun to be had with these guys, who are a very WSU team to root for — flawed, yes, but also extremely likeable as a bunch of guys who play hard for each other and genuinely seems to care for one another.
It was a little dusty when I saw how Mike Flowers’ teammates took care of a guy who has been through so much, but also has only been part of their team for less than a year.
Saturday’s game was full of exciting on-court moments, too. Alley-oop dunks, back-breaking threes, stifling defense ... for a day, everything came together.
Everyone worrying about whether Smith is the guy to get us back in the NCAA tournament should maybe just enjoy the ride — and the moments — instead.