The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

‘Off the court, we’re the most connected we’ve ever been’

WSU men’s basketball’s relationships spearheading historic season
Kymany+Houinsou+and+Isaiah+Watts+dance+after+picking+up+a+huge+win+over+Arizona%2C+Jan.+13%2C+in+Pullman%2C+Wash.+
BRANDON WILLMAN
Kymany Houinsou and Isaiah Watts dance after picking up a huge win over Arizona, Jan. 13, in Pullman, Wash.

A team riddled with interesting stories, WSU has bonded over their respective journeys to Division I basketball. Those bonds have made this year’s team the closest team several of the players have been on during their playing careers. 

“This is one of my most like close-knit teams because everybody loves each other in this team and I think you can see that in the way we play,” senior forward Isaac Jones said after WSU’s 71-61 win over Portland State, Dec. 2.

Jones said he could see the team’s connection in moments of adversity, such as when Wazzu trailed Portland State by 4 with about 12 ½ minutes left in the game.

“A lot of teams would just sit there in sorrow but we got fired up in our huddle. The coaches didn’t have to do it. We huddled ourselves without them and got ourselves going again,” Jones said.

The ability to communicate at a high level in-game has helped WSU catapult to second in the Pac-12 Conference with an overall record of 23-7 and a conference record of 14-5, which included an eight-game win streak.

Wazzu swept the Oregon schools on the road for the first time since 2009, and swept now-No. 5 Arizona, winning in Pullman and Tucson for the first time since the 2006–07 season.

Myles Rice has captured the nation’s attention with his inspiring cancer recovery and overall excellence with seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week Awards. Jones is a two-time Pac-12 Player of the Week and Nigeria-native Rueben Chinyelu, earned the most recent Pac-12 Freshman of the Week Award after recording his first collegiate double-double versus then-No. 4 Arizona.

With a slew of individual recognitions, historic achievements and a growing number of media requests, particularly for Rice, every week, the team has remained close.

“Off the court, we’re the most connected we’ve ever been. It feels like we’re a family,” Wells said. “We always look out for one another.” 

Several different groups within the team live together, including the duo of Wells and Rice. It’s not unique to men’s basketball and not unique to WSU for players to also serve as roommates, but it’s another way the team continues to build their team chemistry. 

One way that the relationship-building process works is that the upper-classman spend a lot of time with younger players on the roster. For Wells and Rice, the two they spend the most time with are Spencer Mahoney and Isaiah Watts. 

The four spend a lot of time hanging out, eating meals together and talking about their journeys and experiences playing basketball to get to Pullman. 

“Me, Isaiah, Spencer and Myles, you know, we like to sit at the table, eat some food, and just talk about like, how far we come. It’s just kind of amazing, like all of our stories,” Wells said. 

Watts is the son of a University of Washington basketball legend in Donald Watts and the grandson of the former NBA player Slick Watts.

Wells received no D-I offers out of high school and chose to attend D-II Sonoma State. Averaging 22.1 points per game while shooting 47.6% from the field and 35.5% from three, Wells achieved one of the best offensive seasons in school history.

He gained the attention of head coach Kyle Smith’s staff and, in April, committed to WSU.

“I just think our chemistry, when we got here in summer, like obviously a lot of us came from a lot of different places. But it didn’t feel like that, you know, it felt like as soon as we like, started practicing, all that, we just gelled together like we’re a family hanging outside like there was no there’s no like cliques, you know, everyone’s together,” Wells said.

Traveling to Pac-12 destinations such as Los Angeles and Arizona, the Cougs know how to keep each other’s spirits high leading up to a game.

Several players were not only playing at, but seeing, the Coliseum and Pauley Pavilion for the first time in their lives. 

Wells said the team took the time to take a break and take in the moment. He said over the course of the season those moments where you can take a step back and appreciate where you’re at without having to worry completely about basketball don’t come often, but the trip to California became one of those times. 

“We’re just having a good time. Just hanging out the day before the game,” Wells said.

It’s not the first, nor the last, time the team will have bonded off the court, as the team is one of the closest units that the players have been a part of during their respective careers. 

“We have such a great group of guys, we love each other. We hang out off the court. You can see the connection we have on the court,” Jakimovksi said after beating Stanford. “That’s the beauty of this team. I think we’re getting better game after game.”

The connection of this team is not just a publicity gimmick or a byproduct of winning, but a testament to the heart and dedication of each member of the team.

“They love each other, man. They play the right way. They pull for each other,” Smith said. 

The Cougs came together with different life experiences, skills and abilities, but the common experience of being underappreciated and overlooked.

“I think it’s huge because part of who I am [is having] a chip on my shoulder. A lof of [people] think I shouldn’t be here, or that I’m a fluke, or I just got lucky,” Jones said. “[Opposing players] were telling me in the game that I can’t score and I was like, ‘Bro, I got 20.’” 

This common experience and belief in each other helps the Cougs achieve great things.

Chinyelu, who now holds the WSU freshman block record with 40 blocks and counting, said the Cougs play like a unit.

“Your teammates want you to win, you want them to win, [we’ve got] that brotherly love,” Chinyelu said. 

As the Cougs prepare for one final home game at 6 p.m. Thursday, they stare history in the face with the chance to break the program record for league wins in a season, the chance to play for first place in the Pac-12 and the chance to send their in-state rival UW packing in their final regular season meeting as Pac-12 rivals.

This history could startle the Cougs, but recent history says it does not.

“When you’re in a unit, it’s going to be very difficult to break down just like a broom. A single broom can be broken, but one is in bonds. It’s very hard to break,” Chinyelu said. “Basketball is a game that brings people together. Creates that family atmosphere”

From the starters to the end of the bench, there is a high level of energy that the Cougs utilize to their advantage. When the team gets going, everyone in the stadium can tell. Players are jumping out of their seats with every bucket and rushing to high-five teammates whenever there is a timeout. 

“Oh no, this team is great, you know, everyone’s just got good energy. Good vibes all the time. Which is positive. You know, it’s great. It’s a great team to be on,” junior center Oscar Cluff said after WSU’s 82-72 win over EWU.

Sophomore Kymany Houinsou said the team feels like a family because of the time they spend hanging out outside the court.

“I think personally, if you hang out with your guys and you like your family, you are linked together like outside the court it’s going to be better [on] the court,” Houinsou said after WSU’s 71-61 win over Portland State Dec. 2.

While the team does have a “next-man-up” attitude about them, that does not stop a couple of players from holding leadership roles. Jakimosvski said that Rice is a vocal leader on the team, while other players point to Jakimovski as being another leader by looking at his work ethic. 

“I tried to bring that same positive energy to the game,” Rice said after WSU’s 82-72 win over EWU. “And you know just how I put my own little swagger onto it,”

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About the Contributors
SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor
Sam is a senior multimedia journalism major from Lacey, Washington and the sports editor for spring 2024. He was the sports editor for the 2022-23 school year and managing editor for the summer and fall 2023. He plays the trumpet in the Cougar Marching Band, loves sports and has worked at the Evergreen since fall 2021.
BRANDON WILLMAN, Multimedia editor
Brandon Willman is a junior multimedia journalism student from Vancouver, Washington. He started working as a sportswriter for the Daily Evergreen in Fall 2022 and worked as copy editor in spring 2023. Brandon was elected to be the Editor-in-chief starting in summer 2023 and served in the position from May 2023 to February 2024 before transitioning to the role of multimedia editor. He enjoys watching sports, backpacking, and watching horror movies.