Cougar Men’s Basketball Team Could Win the Final Pac-12 Season. Time to Show Some Respect


For many Huskies fans, it’s easier to pull for Covid than pull for Cougars. But in the final week of the college basketball regular season, the recommendation here is for the purples to stifle the snickers and give some shout-outs to the crimson crowd.

It’s possible that the final year of the Pac-12 Conference could produce championships by the University of Washington in football and Washington State University in men’s basketball, the schools’ revenue sports that pay for the rest of the NCAA programs.

I’m not sure how to weigh the significance of the feat, having never experienced the dissolution of a league that has been around in some form for 108 years. Does the state of Washington get awarded a “We Do Last Best” certificate? Is there a trophy, like maybe a door blown out of a Boeing 737 Max 9? Do Huskies and Cougars fans meet in Washtucna, hold hands and sing kumbaya?

Dunno. Maybe it’s merely cool, like a stylish hood ornament.

We have time to prepare an answer, because the deed is yet to be accomplished. Huskies football, of course, is in the bank, having won the title in December by beating the Oregon Ducks a second time in the same season. That feat will linger on Montlake long after the charred remains of the Kalen DeBoer statue have turned to dust.

The 19th-ranked Cougs hoopsters (21-7, 12-5 in conference) have three games remaining, all at home. They are in second place as of Thursday morning, behind leader Arizona (21-6, 12-4). Having beaten the Wildcats in both meetings this season, the Cougars have the tiebreaker advantage. They play Thursday against USC, March 2 against UCLA and March 7 against, ahem, Washington.

So the WSU title aspiration is plausible, because the three remaining foes are meh in a withering conference of breathtaking mediocrity. The Huskies (7-10, 15-13) are tied with Stanford in ninth place. The temptation grows to suggest that, in the event that WSU is in position to win the regular-season title with a win over Washington, the Huskies might find a way to engage in a Dribble Off The Foot Event to help usher the Cougars to the heights.

They’ve already done that promotion? Several times? Pity.

Really, the Huskies have almost nothing at stake in the rivalry game. On Feb. 3, they lost at home to the Cougars 90-87 and have been 3-3 since. They will get their automatic entry into the Pac-12’s final conference tournament and seem destined to be one-and-done. The season peaked Dec. 9 with a 78-73 win over Gonzaga, the Huskies’ first win over the powerhouse Bulldogs seemingly since Lake Washington was a mere puddle under a glacier. But the Zags (22-6) have recovered from the shame and seem nearly to have regained their haughty strut.

UW players could try to muster the gumption to win one for their perpetually beleaguered coach, Mike Hopkins. After being named Pac-12 coach of the year in each of his first two years, which included a berth in the NCAA tournament in 2018, Hopkins’ record over the past five seasons is 68-82 entering the week. Despite having two starters transferring from powerhouse Kentucky in Keion Brooks and Sahvir Wheeler, the roster was crushed with the loss of its quality big man, 6-foot-11 Franck Kepnang, to a knee injury in December. A top freshman guard from Texas, 6-foot-4 Wesley Yates III, had ankle injuries so severe he never played.

But the student crowd at Hec Ed rarely offers sympathy regarding such facts. The chants of “Fi-re Hop-kins” have almost become a Zen-like ritual. Even with a rousing upset of the Cougars, it seems doubtful players can save his job. Perhaps the only thing preserving his employment is the reluctance of new athletics director Troy Dannen to burden the department’s sagging finances by paying the balance of Hopkins’ contract to not coach — and overpaying to get a new guy.

Meanwhile In Pullman, Hopkins’ contemporary, Kyle Smith, is a candidate for national coach of the year. Picked to finish 10th in a preseason media poll, the Cougs are a lock to make the NCAA tourney field for the first time since 2008, when they had a run under coach Tony Bennett to the round of 16, pre-Klay Thompson.

The seasonal highlight came last week in Tucson, when the Cougs upset fourth-ranked Arizona 77-74, thanks largely to a rare four-point play in the final seconds when Jaylen Wells, who played at Division II Sonoma State a year ago, hit a trey from the corner while being knocked down and fouled.

After Washington’s role in conference realignment that sent the Huskies into the Big Ten, leaving Washington State and Oregon State to make their livings out of the mud and leaves of a Pac-2, sweetness shall sweep the Palouse if UW is a steppingstone to the Big Dance, where the Huskies have been once in 12 years. In the NIL era, the Montlake embarrassment is acute because Smith rebuilt his roster in Pullman despite far fewer dollars going to players. And the Cougs still have an outside shot (they’re good at them) at one of the NCAA regional tourney berths in Spokane.

If WSU pulls off the regular-season title, it is incumbent upon the purples to genuflect eastward. These days, humility is an elusive virtue in big-time college sports, especially when the fam is breaking up.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. WSU alum here, so even though I have a couple of degrees from the U of WA, my loyalty remains with WSU. Thanks for the article, though I admit to preferring women’s college basketball and have even been known to cheer for the Huskies women — except when they play the Cougar women. I’m dismayed at the demise of the soon-to-be-former PAC-12, though big-time college sports seems to be all about $$$ these days. It’s yet another ‘way of the world’ that displeases me.

    • The tumult in big-time college sports has righted one wrong: Amateurism in a lucrative industry. Athletes are finally receiving compensation for their labors that grow college profiles and revenues. The negative fallout that displeases you is decades-long greed and mismanagement by college officials.

      • Thank you for the reminder. I’d add the power, as well as the savvy, of media companies to recognize and then exploit the weaknesses (naivete, perhaps, or plain ‘cluelessness’) of college administrators.

  2. Because I am a huge Virginia (and Tony Bennett) basketball fan, I’ve been following Kyle Smith’s tenure at WSU over the last couple of seasons. This year’s success did not happen overnight. He has done a remarkable job with the Cougars, and really seems to be building a successful program there, which is incredibly impressive given how hard it is to draw top tier basketball talent to Pullman.

    He really does deserve to be national coach of the year. But I’m guessing that Cougs fans should savor every moment of this season, because now that the secret is out that Smith is an exceptional coach, I would think it won’t be long before he’s going to get recruited away to a higher profile Power 5 basketball school, just as Bennett was.

    • Likely true. Success at WSU makes for a steppingstone to bigger programs. Huskies fans just wish for hoops success so they can aspire to be a steppingstone.

  3. One good reason for DeBoer to bail when he did, coaching stock can drop quickly in college athletics.
    I believe that both Romar and Hopkins had very promising first seasons. What Kyle Smith does after this season may be a hot topic.
    Mark Few seems destined to hold on at Gonzaga, where his team has done everything but win a title.

    • Everyone understands why DeBoer left; he was offered the top job in the college football world. If Smith wins a game or two in the NCAA tourney, he’ll be the same kind of target DeBoer was.

  4. I have to wonder why I still see beaucoup seat backs at Beasley. Maybe 10,000, tops, showed for UCLA. Still leaves 2000 available.
    Everyone leave town because Dissmore’s closed? Geez Cougs, c’mon.


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