At roughly 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 22, 24 Cougs — players, coaches, managers, student assistants, etc. — linked arms and formed a circle inside the cramped visitor’s locker room at McKale Center in Tucson. Minutes earlier, they’d secured a 77-74 upset of No. 4 Arizona, completing a surprising season sweep.

This was, perhaps, the greatest victory of fifth-year Washington State men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith’s career. It was also the Cougs’ eighth consecutive victory — a sprint stocked with overtime escapes, Pac-12 pummelings …

And celebratory songs.

“All right, get us started,” said Smith, another link in the circle. “Who’s got us?”

Cue the chorus of rapping Cougs.

“Been around the wheat fields twice,

Winter on the Palouse cold as ice,

Learned a lot of lessons in PEB 142,

like closing out and yelling ‘Loose!,’

Never missed a line on my conditioning time,

Ain’t nothing I can’t do. I’m on my hustle stat!

People like to call us nerds, and that’s OK by me,

‘Cause coach always says, ‘Pull that 3!’

Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing,

Moderation is for Huskies and Bruins and Wildcats!

When the game gets tough, no one will ever forget …

We’re from Pullman, freakin’ Pullman, freakin’ Pullman, we don’t care,

I would rather be from Pullman than a chump from anywhere! Go Cougs!”

Written by Smith, “Ballad of the Palouse” is spoken/sung/chanted/shouted by a choir of players and coaches after every WSU victory. It’s inspired by the Navy SEAL credo “Ballad of the Frogman,” popularized via the 2013 movie “Lone Survivor.”

By now, though, Smith is a seasoned songwriter (and culture builder). The 54-year-old coach spent nine years (2001-10) as an assistant at Saint Mary’s, where he jokes that the Gaels enjoyed “a very clandestine celebration after a game that was originated by the Australian [players]. It was, I’ll say, PG-13.”

In his head-coaching stints at Columbia (2010-16), San Francisco (2016-19) and Washington State (2019-present), Smith implemented a tradition, with the song’s lyrics evolving to highlight each program and community’s culture. The current iteration is a blue-collar ballad — saluting Pullman winters, Smith’s “nerdball” analytics and the daily drills in Physical Education Building, Room 142 … the program’s practice gym.

To start a season, he hands out cheat sheets with the song’s lyrics to Coug newcomers.

By now, they no longer need them.

“You always have to celebrate the wins. That makes it special,” Smith told The Times last week, when asked about the song. “You’re pretty good when they have it memorized.”

At 23-8, No. 22 WSU might be better than pretty good — primed to participate in its first NCAA tournament since 2008. The Cougs are projected to earn a No. 6 or 7 seed, with an outside opportunity to play their opening games in nearby Spokane as well. First they’ll attempt to make a significant run as a 2-seed in the Pac-12 tournament — awaiting either Cal or Stanford in Thursday evening’s quarterfinal.

For Smith and Co. it’s already been a transcendent season. But how many more times will these Cougs sing?

There are two elements to that answer.

Element No. 1

Let’s acknowledge the obvious. Since they formed that circle inside McKale Center, the Cougs have started to sputter. Specifically, WSU has lost two of its past four games, including last week’s 74-68 Apple Cup letdown in front of 9,311 in Pullman on senior night.

Though WSU out-rebounded UW 44-34 and attempted 16 more shots, the Cougs were unable to take advantage of extra opportunities. They shot 39.4% from the field, converting just 4 of 24 3-pointers and 8 of 17 free throws. In their past two losses, to UW and Arizona State, WSU connected on a combined 7 of 42 3-point tries (16.7%).

(A nagging shoulder injury to senior forward Andrej Jakimovski, whose 60 3-pointers lead the team, certainly hasn’t helped.)

WSU has also suffered from slow starts in each of its past four games — an 11-4 deficit against UW, 19-6 against UCLA, 39-27 against USC and 18-6 against Arizona State.

At their best, Smith’s Cougs smother opponents with their length and array of selfless scorers — including Jakimovski, fifth-year forward Isaac Jones, redshirt freshman guard Myles Rice and junior forward Jaylen Wells. Of late, 6-foot-11 center Oscar Cluff and freshman guard Isaiah Watts have provided an additional scoring punch.

“We’ve got multiple guys that are very big believers in themselves, and they’re without ego — without the jealousy for their teammates,” Smith said last week. “They’ve just made some big plays. Jaylen Wells has hit some big shots. Andrej has hit some big shots. Myles has hit some big shots. Isaac’s carried [the load]. So when you have more than one guy that’s done it, that’s helpful.”

The Cougs must start fast and hit timely shots when opponents crowd the paint.

But to ensure the “Ballad of the Palouse” persists beyond this season?

Secure the songwriter.

Element No. 2

Smith’s song has accompanied the coach from Columbia to San Francisco to Pullman. He’s helped bring joy (and relevancy) back to Beasley Coliseum.

But can the Cougs keep him?

“It’s something we tabled to the end of this year,” Smith said last week, on the subject of a contract extension. “But they want me here, and that’s awesome. It’s a great feeling. Comforting. That’s been from, really, day one. After my first year they extended me, and it’s always been like, ‘We’d love to have you here, with what you’re about.’ So it’s great.”

That’s not an overwhelmingly comforting answer, particularly when the cross-state rival has a sudden vacancy. There’s also uncertainty associated with a looming move to the West Coast Conference, as the gap between college athletics’ heavyweights and underdogs hopelessly expands. And after being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year on Tuesday, Smith undoubtedly will face a line of suitors at season’s end (if not sooner).

For WSU athletic director Pat Chun, extending Smith should be Priority No. 1.

But that’s easier said — or sung — than done.

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