SAN FRANCISCO – The Washington State basketball team won’t be burdened by expectations in the 2013-14 season. The Cougars – picked by the Pac-12 media to finish last in the conference – will still have a yoke to bear, however: the weight of proving everyone wrong.
“We can run with it and use that as a stepping stone, as like a chip on our shoulder,” junior guard DaVonte Lacy said. “But I don’t really pay attention to it. It doesn’t really affect me at all.”
It’s true the Cougars don’t appear to be much of a threat on paper. Gone are Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, who combined to score nearly half of WSU’s points per game last season, and that team only won four Pac-12 games. But coach Ken Bone believes there is reason to think his squad will still improve.
In five Pac-12 games last year, the Cougars lost by five points or less. If WSU’s returning players get better at closing out games, the team could progress in a hurry.
“Bottom line is, we did not win some close games and a lot of that is on me as the head coach,” Bone said. “Hopefully, I’m a better coach this year than last year.”
The Cougars are not alone in their skepticism of their futility’s inevitability. Few coaches know Bone better than Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, who says not to count out his former assistant so quickly.
“Coach Bone is a fighter; he’s going to get everything out of that team that they have in them,” Romar said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. The times that people counted them out, they were a point or two away from winning a lot of games.”
If WSU is to exceed expectations, it’ll be due to the strength of the backcourt. Even with the loss of junior college transfer Danny Lawhorn, who left the team following a suspension in late September, Bone expects a lot out of his guards.
In addition to Lacy, Royce Woolridge returns and has proven to be a solid contributor, scoring 11 points a game last season to lead the returnees. Highly-regarded freshman Que Johnson joins the team after sitting out last season.
Dexter Kernich-Drew is a 6-foot-6 athlete, and incoming freshman Ike Iroegbu turned down schools like Memphis and Virginia Tech to play for the Cougars.
“I like the mix of guys,” Bone said. “We have had a good summer and fall; love the work ethic, the attitude and the coachability that these guys bring.”
Bone also mentioned center Jordan Railey – a transfer from Iowa State who sat out last season and is currently suspended for violating team rules – as a player he expects to contribute. Railey’s ability to fill the void left by All-Pac-12 power forward Motum could be a key factor in determining whether or not WSU improves on the expectations.
It’s looking up for Pac-12
For several years, the Pac-12’s NCAA tournament bid numbers have befitted a smaller, mid-major conference.
Things got so bad that when Washington won the conference in 2012, the Huskies were still left out of March Madness.
But there is widespread agreement among conference coaches that this year will be different, that the Pac-12 is ready to once again assume the mantle of college basketball’s toughest league.
“I think the league is going to be probably as good as it has been in the five years that I’ve been here. It’s going to be exciting for everyone,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said at the Pac-12 basketball media day. “I don’t think you’re going to have a night off this year.”
The lack of substance first became apparent in 2010, when only two teams represented the conference in the NCAA tournament. It was the first time less than five Pac-12 teams had received bids since four went in 2006.
The reason was obvious: An exodus of players to the NBA had left a dearth of talent in the league. In 2008, an astonishing seven underclassmen from the Pac-12 were taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Players like Stanford’s Lopez twins, Cal’s Ryan Anderson, conference Player of the Year Kevin Love of UCLA and USC’s O.J. Mayo were all major contributors at young ages, and their departures left a void in the conference.
In 2009, Arizona State’s James Harden, UCLA’s Jrue Holiday and others made the leap. Guys who had come to the Pac-12 because of the league’s success were spending their third and fourth years out of high school contributing to NBA teams, rendering the league noncompetitive for the length of a player’s career.
“In the last few years we have been in the process of replenishing our conference,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “And I think our conference is definitely in the upward trend to becoming a better conference. I think it’s here.”
After the last four years, nobody understands better than Pac-12 coaches how important conference perception is to every individual team. As such, while they’ll be opponents come January, they’ll be rooting for each other in nonconference games.
“I mean, we have tough, tough nonconference games,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “It’s important that we show well in those games. It’s important that every team in our conference plays well in the nonleague portion of their schedule, because that brings credibility to our conference.”
New rules neutralize aggressive defenders
In an effort to allow college basketball players more freedom of movement on offense, the NCAA has instituted a number of new rules to limit defenders.
Pac-12 coordinator of officials Bobby Dibler explained that it will now be an automatic foul for a defender to place two hands on an opponent, or to place an arm-bar on the back of an offensive player who is backing down.
Additionally, an offensive player no longer needs to have already left the ground when a defender moves in front for a block to be called; they merely need to have begun their upward motion.
While coaches such as Romar admitted that the new rules could severely affect UW’s style of play on defense, other coaches were happy with the changes.
“It’s actually going to help us,” Robinson said. “If you watch us play we do a lot of passing and cutting, and what bothers us is when people can grab us. I like the game where you have to stay in front of guys.”