With so many new parts, a lack of a good big man and several key players just now returning from injury, the WSU basketball team figures to start slow in Pac-12 play.
The question is whether the Cougars can finish better than the bottom third, as most are predicting.
Cal, Stanford, Arizona and Washington are considered the top contenders at this point.
“As things stand right now, Stanford and California have proven how good they are,” WSU coach Ken Bone said in an online chat hosted by The Seattle Times two weeks ago, “and it’s just a matter of time before Arizona and Washington do the same.”
The Cougars open with the Oregon schools in Spokane, where they hope to pull more fans. The Ducks (9-3) have been every bit as underwhelming as the rest of the Pac-12, with double-digit losses to Vanderbilt, BYU and Virginia. They are still trying to figure out who they are, too, and Bone said he likes the way his team matches up against them.
Oregon State (10-2) might finally become known for more than the fact that coach Craig Robinson is President Obama’s brother-in-law. Jared Cunningham leads a deep lineup that is good around the basket, and the Beavers appear to be one of the conference’s up-and-comers.
If the Cougars can start with a split, that will be fair enough. Then they go to Utah and Colorado, where they could come away with two wins but more likely will split.
Then comes the first Apple Basket, Jan. 15 in Seattle. Cougar fans certainly have to hope the Cougs have figured out their rotation issues by then. The Huskies are having similar problems and could be ripe for the upset, but they also are more talented.
The Bay area schools come next. Because of the new unbalanced schedule, the Cougars get home court against Stanford (10-2) and Cal (10-3), without having to visit them this season. An advantage?
“If you look at the conference standings at this point, it looks like an advantage only playing them once,” Bone agreed. “But maybe it’s a disadvantage playing Utah (3-8) and Colorado (6-4) just once. So at the end of the day, I think it all balances out fairly for everybody.”
After the Bay schools come to Pullman, the Cougs visit the Arizona teams to finish the first half.
Five wins at the halfway point would be a success. Three would mean they were struggling as badly as most think they will.
Their best basketball figures to come toward the end of the season, assuming they don’t lose guys to injury like they did in the preseason.
Ideally, Bone will figure out how to mix and match his scorers with his role players. Faisal Aden is a lightning rod for fans, who tend to love him or hate him, but he is their most experienced scorer. Brock Motum is off to a very nice start, and Bone expects Mike Ladd and freshman DaVonte Lacy to grow into the rotation and provide scoring, too.
Reggie Moore, Marcus Capers and Abe Lodwick are all experienced players who know their roles, and senior Charlie Enquist is playing more than ever now that DeAngelo Casto is gone and the Cougars are woefully thin up front.
Bone said Enquist and Capers are perhaps the most important players as the team enters Pac-12 play.
Enquist has taken advantage of his playing time to put up decent numbers against lesser competition. It remains to be seen whether he can carry that over to Pac-12 games.
Capers is no offensive threat, but he is perhaps WSU’s best all-around player.
Said Bone: “He gives us so many other things besides his perimeter shooting that at times he’s hard to take off the floor.”
The key for the Cougars is to get off to better starts, hitting shots early and not turning the ball over so much. Slow offensive starts in both halves have been the bane of Bone’s teams so far, and he has to fix it this year.
The Cougars underachieved last season, failing to make the NCAA field despite a veteran lineup led by Klay Thompson. They had to settle for the NIT, where they made a redemptive run to the semifinals. While that was a disappointing season for that group, it would qualify as a success for this team.
It will take Bone a few games to get his team playing together, but if the Cougars can put it together in the second half of the season, they should be able to get back to the NIT. And hopefully that will set them up for an NCAA appearance next season.