PULLMAN – If the season just passed has a parallel in Washington State men’s basketball history, it might be 1996, the last time the Cougars finished a run of three consecutive postseason appearances.
If next season has a doppelganger, it’s a lot more recent – just a handful of years, in fact. It’s 2005-2006, the last season of Dick Bennett’s WSU tenure.
“It was a hard year,” WSU coach Tony Bennett remembered this week. “We didn’t have a lot of upperclassmen. It was almost all freshmen and sophomores.”
That season WSU finished 11-17, losing seven Pac-10 games by five or less points. So should there be worries about next season?
“I’m not really sure,” said Taylor Rochestie, a redshirt member of that squad and the senior leader of this past one. “A lot of people thought there was a question mark by this year, (because) a lot of the seniors were gone.”
But four seasons ago, Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low and Robbie Cowgill were sophomores. Still, with six of the top seven scorers underclassmen, the foundation was laid for the NCAA success that was to follow.
“It’s just a matter of how hard they are willing to work in the offseason,” Rochestie said, when asked if this year’s freshmen could be compared with the group that graduated last season. “I think they picked it up, that it takes a team to win. Our coach ingrained that in them. Hopefully, they’ll come together next year and defy expectations.
“Sometimes getting rid of some old folks like me and (Aron) Baynes can be a good thing.”
Bennett knows the Cougars will miss Rochestie, Baynes, Caleb Forrest and Daven Harmeling. The quartet combined for 61 percent of WSU’s points, 49 percent of its rebounds, and most of the big plays.
“That’s a lot of wins and a lot of minutes that are leaving,” Bennett said, “Just like the group the previous year. … They brought so much to our program and they’ll be missed in a lot of ways.”
This year’s seniors won more games than any at WSU since World War II and defeated every Pac-10 team at least once. Harmeling also became the first Cougar to have experienced victory on the road at every Pac-10 school in his career.
But, after an up-and-down (17-16, 8-10 Pac-10) season that saw WSU win for only the second time at Pauley Pavilion but miss the NCAAs for the first time in Tony Bennett’s tenure, they move on.
Left to take over is one junior (Nik Koprivica) and eight freshmen. Sophomore Fabian Boeke was injured much of the past two years and may not receive medical clearance to continue his WSU career.
One returner who will be counted on heavily is wing Klay Thompson.
The 6-foot-6, 187-pound Thompson started all 33 games in his freshman season and led the Cougars in scoring for a good part of if it. Only a four-game slide to end the season – he did not hit double figures in any – dropped his scoring average to 12.5 points per game. Still, Thompson finished the season in the top five of WSU’s freshman records in eight categories.
“I thought I would get a lot of opportunity when I was being recruited here, it was one of the main draws,” Thompson said. “I don’t see (my role) changing much next year. I had to move without the ball to be effective and I think I’ll have to keep trying to do that next year.”
Thompson was called upon at the end of the season to initiate the offense, taking some of the pressure off Rochestie.
“I think I’ll handle the ball more in the future, but we have other guards who can handle it real well, too,” Thompson said.
One of those who had a chance this season was 6-4 freshman Marcus Capers, who started nine games and served as the ball-pressure defender down the stretch. Another freshman who saw considerable time late in the season, 6-8 post DeAngelo Casto, blocked a WSU freshman-record 39 shots and, along with Thompson, made the All-Pac-10 freshman team.
“The freshmen, they got a lot of experience this season, and not just experience, but experience with winning, too,” Rochestie said.
When asked which freshman who didn’t play much this season could contribute next year, Rochestie didn’t hesitate.
“I think people saw a little bit of Mike Harthun at the very, very end,” Rochestie said of the 6-1 guard who played sparingly in 14 games. “He can really, really score the ball. In practices he scores at a high rate.”
Rochestie and Thompson both also mentioned 6-8 James Watson, who redshirted this season, as a player with a high upside.
This year’s freshmen will be joined next season by a class that will be given opportunities to play right away.
The four-player class includes a point guard – 6-3 Xavier Thames from Northern California – a wing – 6-5 Anthony Brown from Spokane’s Shadle Park High – and two bigs – 6-9 Brock Motum from Australia and 6-8 David Chadwick from North Carolina. If the opportunity arises through roster changes, the Cougars may sign another player or two during the later letter of intent period that begins April 15.