When the season began, few would’ve thought the Washington State men’s basketball team would still be playing hoops at this time of year.
The fourth-seeded Cougars (22-14) find themselves in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals today courtesy of a big postseason underdog run over the last several weeks.
They face top-seeded Texas A&M (26-12) at 6:30 pm Pacific today (ESPN2) at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a chance to play for a tournament title.
It’s a business trip for coach Kyle Smith and crew, but the Cougs are also making sure to enjoy the journey.
“We’re trying to balance between getting ready for a game and trying to enjoy part of the New York City experience,” Smith said Monday. “We had a rooftop dinner kind of overlooking the city. That was cool for our guys and felt safe as a coach (since) they weren’t running around the streets.”
The team also got to catch a Brooklyn Nets vs. Charlotte Hornets NBA game on Sunday — the first home game back for star Nets guard Kyrie Irving.
Despite playing on the opposite side of the country, WSU will have some familiar faces in the stands today, and not just from the faithful fans who are making the trip from the Palouse.
Sophomore forward TJ Bamba and assistant coach Derrick Phelps are NYC natives, and Smith started his head coaching career at Columbia University in the city.
“I know I’m paying a lot of money for extra tickets,” Smith said, smiling. “Got a lot of people asking, so that’s a good sign.”
While the Cougs are enjoying the “feel of just the vibrance of the city, the people, the action,” their main focus remains on the basketball court.
Smith said the team owes much of their success in that regard to steady senior guard Michael Flowers, who racked up 27 points in the team’s quarterfinals win over BYU and leads the team with 14.4 points per contest.
Flowers is an even-keeled, lead-by-example veteran on an otherwise fairly young Cougar team.
“They’ve stayed in the zone,” Smith said. “A lot of it is attributed to Mike and his leadership and his calm demeanor. … He’s playing for a tournament championship — we all are, but him being in his last go-around, it’s kind of keeping everyone together.”
Depth has also been key for the Cougs. Smith said the team is 14-3 this season when the full roster is available.
WSU is regularly playing a nine- or 10-man rotation that includes Flowers, Bamba, fellow guards Tyrell Roberts and Noah Williams; center Dishon Jackson and forwards Efe Abogidi, DJ Rodman, Andrej Jakimovski and Mouhamed Gueye.
In the Aggies, the Cougars will face another defensive-minded team, albeit one with a different style.
WSU uses its size and athleticism to slow down the game, limit easy shots around the basket and make it hard to get open 3-pointers. Texas A&M, meanwhile, is a smaller, versatile team that uses its speed to play pressure defense and force turnovers.
“They’re going to blitz, they just play really hard,” Smith said. “They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They feel like they deserved to be in the NCAA tournament.”
Offensively, the Aggies are led by senior guard Quenton Jackson (14.5 points per game) and sophomore forward Henry Coleman (11 points, 6.1 rebounds).
Like the Cougars, Texas A&M is playing its best basketball of the season late. The Aggies are 10-1 over their last 11 games.
“They’re playing with an edge to prove everyone that the committee was wrong,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to hang onto our guts and we’ll see how tough we are.”