Unlike their cross-state counterparts, the Washington State Cougars didn't exactly finish last season on a high note.
The season started out promisingly enough, with WSU racing out to a 10-2 record on the back of Klay Thompson, who shot himself right into the national conversation by scoring seemingly at will. The only two losses of the nonconference slate came at the hands of Gonzaga (a close loss at the Kennel) and Kansas State (certainly no shame there), so there were plenty of good vibes surrounding the program in Ken Bone's first season taking over for Tony Bennett.
The good feeling wouldn't last long.
After starting the Pac-10 schedule a respectable 4-3 -- with the one of the losses coming at the hands of some whistle-happy referees -- it all came crashing down. Thompson wore down as defenses keyed in on him, the offense came crashing down as he shot himself into oblivion, and WSU played its worst defense since before Dick and Tony Bennett arrived, sending the Cougars into a 2-10 tailspin to end the season.
The final indignity? A last place-finish in the conference and a first-round loss in the Pac-10 tournament to -- who else? -- Oregon. You know, the team that had already fired its coach. In overtime. Which was brought on by allowing a putback by E.J. Singler as regulation expired.
It was a fitting end to a frustrating season.
That hasn't dampened optimism on the Palouse, however. While the Cougs did finish last, they did so with six conference wins, which was only two games out of fifth in the mediocre Pac-10. WSU also returns one of the best trios in the conference in Thompson, Reggie Moore and DeAngelo Casto.
So, as WSU officially kicks off the 2010-2011 season tonight with its symbolic Midnight Mayhem event (like everyone else, the team has actually been practicing limited hours for some time), let's take a look at the top five storylines facing the Cougars in advance of their first game on Nov. 13.
Will The Real Klay Thompson Please Stand Up?
Bone made no secret of the fact that he thought Thompson would have to be his go-to scorer last year, and for a time, Thompson made him look like a genius. He averaged 25 points in nonconference play and did it efficiently by draining 3s from all over the court and getting to the line. He was simply unstoppable at times. Turns out, the low level of competition had a lot to do with it, and when faced with long athletic defenders who could bump him, crowd him and push him off his spots, he struggled mightily.
So, the question becomes this: Has Thompson added enough muscle to his frame and variety to his game to succeed against elite defenders this year? If he improves as much from last year to this as he did from his first year to last, then the answer might well be yes. He's obsessed with perfection and works tirelessly on his game, and rumblings out of Pullman are that he's ready to take the next step. If so, he's a potent enough scorer to carry the Cougs to the NCAA Tournament.
About That Defense ...
Fans had become so accustomed to WSU basketball's first three priorities being defense, defense and defense that last season was quite the shock to the system. It's not like Bone doesn't want his teams to play defense; it's just that ... well, Bone sees defense more as a way to jumpstart the offense, which is pretty much 180 degrees different from his predecessor.
In an ideal world, Bone wants to run a ball-pressure defense similar to what you'd see a Lorenzo Romar team run at Washington. But the reality was that Bone didn't have the depth or talent to do that, so he settled for attempting to mesh his offense-first mentality with a hybrid of the pack-line defense employed by the Bennetts. The results were disastrous, as WSU allowed a conference-worst 1.04 points per possession.
This year, Bone has added reinforcements to the guard rotation in freshman Dre Winston and JC transfer Faisal Aden. The hope is that they have the foot speed and athleticism to complement Moore, Thompson and shutdown-defender-in-the-making Marcus Capers on the perimeter, forcing turnovers and funneling drivers to Casto, the best shot blocker in the Pac-10 a year ago.
Will it work? It needs to -- if this team truly wants to make some noise, it probably needs to cobble together at least a league-average defense.
Early Statements Needed
The Cougs have multiple chances in the nonconference slate to prove to doubters that the 2009-2010 season is behind them, and the circumstances couldn't be more favorable. A pair of probable top 10 opponents -- Kansas State and Gonzaga -- will travel to Pullman within a week of each other in early December, a rarity in the nonconference portion of the schedule. Then, WSU will travel to the islands for Christmas to participate in the Diamondhead Classic, where a matchup with possible top 25 team Baylor awaits if the Cougs can get past Mississippi State in the opener. Get through that one, and 2009-2010 runner up Butler is the likely opponent in the championship.
Winning both those big games in Pullman is probably asking a lot, but winning one should not be. Neither should winning a couple of games in Hawaii. Not if this team is serious about getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
Will Reggie Moore Bring It Every Play Of Every Game?
Moore brought a level of athleticism to the point guard spot that hadn't been seen at WSU in years. There were times last year as a true freshman when Moore was simply spectacular -- he basically beat USC down in Los Angeles all by himself. Moore demonstrated an ability to penetrate and get to the free throw with alarming regularity for a team that was one of the worst at getting to the line before his arrival.
But for as good as Moore was at times last year, there were also times were it certainly seemed like he wasn't giving it his full effort -- especially on defense. Moore doesn't always concentrate when the ball isn't in his hands, and he struggled mightily with the nuances of rotating to help his teammates on defense. And as the season wore on, he wore down, becoming more and more reluctant to drive to the basket -- his free throw rate dipped in conference play, and his point production went with it.
When Reggie Moore is focused, he's a game changer.
Who Will Help DeAngelo Casto In The Frontcourt?
Casto joins Arizona's Derrick Wiliams, UCLA's Reeves Nelson and USC's Nikola Vucevic as the premier returning big men in the conference, which is great news for WSU. The bad news, though, is that it's one giant question mark in the frontcourt beyond Casto. Abe Lodwick started most of last season next to Casto, but, at 6-foot-7 and a generous 208 pounds, he's hardly a power forward.
Problem is, the alternatives aren't great. The best candidate is probably sophomore Australian Brock Motum, who is reportedly an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier than last season (now 6-10, 230). That's good, because while he flashed excellent basketball skill, he clearly wasn't ready for the physical nature of Pac-10 basketball. Sophomore Steven Bjornstad has the size (6-11, 240) but perhaps not the knees (he's already been limited in workouts), and freshman Patrick Simon is more of a perimeter player who, at 6-8 and 214, might face many of the same challenges as Motum did last year.
Rebounding beyond Casto -- especially on the defensive end -- is a major concern. And if Casto, who had knee surgery before last season, were to go down for an length of time ... let's just say he'd likely take the season down with him, as there's not another player on the roster who possesses his rebounding and shot-blocking ability.