PULLMAN – Remember how much you had to learn your freshman year in college?
Where’s the library? Who sells Top Ramen the cheapest? Which professor should you avoid?
Now take all that usual freshman learning curve and add an upper-level class.
Call it Road Basketball 201.
The course description contains something along the lines of “preparing the callow 18-year-old for the rigors of the away game in the Pac-10 Conference.”
It’s a Washington State class that’s meeting for the first time this Friday. The classroom is in Newark, N.J.’s Prudential Center.
The initial test is undefeated Mississippi State, a 23-11, NCAA team from a year ago, picked by the media this season to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, which it won the past two years.
Nothing easy about this class. Especially for the handful of freshmen WSU is counting on to help take some slack off the five returning upperclassmen.
“When you play in high school, for the school games, the crowd would give you a hard time, but in college fans do their research, so they know stuff about you and your sister and your brother and your parents,” said senior Daven Harmeling, the lone holdover from the freshman class that entered in 2004 and lifted WSU from basketball purgatory.
“It’s weird warming up and being attacked personally. You have to learn to have fun with it and not take it personally.”
But it isn’t just the fans that the freshmen have to deal with – and that won’t be much of problem this weekend any way, as the Legends Classic final four is on a neutral court, with fourth-ranked Pitt the closest competitor, and it’s some 360 miles away.
The biggest test will be offered by the opponents themselves, some of the elite of college basketball.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” said Klay Thompson, who has started each of WSU’s first four games and is leading the team in scoring, averaging 12.3 points per game. “It’s our first time traveling with the Washington State basketball team and it’s going to be a test when we play these other big-time conference teams. It will be a great test for us.”
The Bulldogs (5-0 after defeating St. Bonaventure 76-71 on the road Tuesday night) will present a tall test, especially in the middle, where Jarvis Varnado roams.
Varnado, the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-9 shot-blocking junior center – he had a school-record 157 blocks last season and is already the school’s all-time leader – was picked to the SEC preseason first team by the conference’s coaches after being named the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2007-08. He had 19 points and 12 rebounds against St. Bonaventure.
Such competition was what coach Tony Bennett was after when he had assistant Ron Sanchez put together this year’s schedule.
“We were looking for a quality tournament with as good of competition as we could find,” said Bennett of a schedule that also includes nonconference home games against No. 9 Gonzaga and undefeated Baylor. “The plan to play in this type of tournament is to grow and learn, to find out what we need to work at.
“And it’s a chance to test your game against some of the better teams.”
But there is more to a road trip than just playing. Early season cross-country ones like this allow each player to “learn more about each other,” according to Harmeling.
And to learn whether they are ready for the graduate-level work that is the Pac-10 conference.
“The biggest thing I’ve told our freshmen, whether we’re playing Mississippi State or Texas Tech or Pittsburgh,” Harmeling said. “It’s not that we have to shoot 50 percent from 3 to beat them. No, we can’t have any transition baskets, we can’t turn the ball over, we have to block out every single time. The things we really believe in, the most simple parts of the game, we have to be flawless.
“Teams like this will expose you if you don’t do the little things. That’s what it really comes down to.”
If you want to pass.
“I want to learn more about our team,” Bennett said. “Games, tournaments like this reveal where you’re at. There’s no substitute for playing high-level teams.”