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WSU team a lot like last junior group that excelled

DeAngelo Casto and his fellow Cougs posted a 10-2 record in preconference play for a second straight year. (Associated Press)
DeAngelo Casto and his fellow Cougs posted a 10-2 record in preconference play for a second straight year. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – The similarities are interesting.

Maybe not to the eerie level, but interesting nonetheless.

The 2005-06 Washington State men’s basketball team under coach Dick Bennett finished last in the Pac-10 with a 4-14 record. Of those defeats, 10 were by 10 points or less, seven by five or less and four by two points.

Three sophomores, Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill, played prominent roles.

The 2009-10 WSU team under coach Ken Bone finished last in the Pac-10 with a 6-12 record. Of those defeats, half were by 10 points or less, four were by five points or less and three by two points. Throw in the 82-80 overtime loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament, and the Cougars lost nearly as many close games last year as in Bennett’s last season.

Three sophomores, Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto and Marcus Capers, played prominent roles.

So what happened the next season back then?

You know. It was the magical 26-8 year under first-year coach Tony Bennett. The Cougars finished second in the Pac-10 at 13-5 and advanced to the NCAA’s second round.

“That group definitely did come together,” said WSU assistant Ben Johnson, who filled the same role back then. “That was a group that had great chemistry.”

And that’s what the 2010-11 team built during its 10-2 nonconference season, Johnson believes, and why its Pac-10 success could be in the same vein.

“I don’t know if this group is close to that yet, but I do see some similarities,” Johnson said Tuesday. “The chemistry of this team is as good as it’s been, as we’ve seen it in two years – on and off the court.

“This is a group of guys that are really down for each other, meaning they are really playing for each other and they really want to see other do well.”

The Cougars begin Pac-10 play tonight against UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, where they have won just twice in the building’s history – both in the past seven years.

WSU has been away from Pullman since Dec. 18 and has played four games, winning three, including an upset of then No. 15 Baylor in the semifinals of the Diamond Head Classic. The Cougars, who have been in the Los Angeles area since Saturday, are coming off an 84-68 defeat to Butler in the tournament final.

It’s funny that Johnson points out a characteristic that’s hard to gauge statistically.

As the assistant with responsibilities for the defense, he could have pointed to those stats, an area in which this year’s team has paralleled the earlier group, at least in nonconference play.

The NCAA team held its pre-Pac-10 opponents to 57.6 points, 40.9 percent shooting and 32.5 percent from beyond the arc. This WSU group, after struggling on the defensive end last season, is limiting them to 61.8, 36.9 and 27.1, respectively.

But instead of statistics, Johnson again cited chemistry.

“To a man, no one really cares who is scoring the points, getting the shots, and that’s rare,” Johnson said. “These guys just want to win. … The game against Baylor, Klay’s out of the game getting a quick rest and Faisal (Aden) is out there hitting shots.

“Who is the first guy to stand up and cheer and wave the towel? It’s Klay Thompson. That’s a great sign.”

Bone sees another immeasurable area in which this group has improved over last year’s, which also posted a 10-2 nonconference mark.

“We’ve shown that (maturity) in a few games this year where there have been situations similar to last year and we’ve just handled them better,” he said. “We do a better job of playing through adverse situations and that usually comes with experience and being there before.

“That experience should help (and) pay off.”