After practice on the eve of Washington State’s Spokane Arena rumble with Colorado, the Cougars’ Brett Boese took a basketball a few rows up into the seats and began lofting one-bounce alley-oop setups in the direction of teammate Que Johnson.
When about the 12th try had failed due to false start, whiff or brick, Boese cracked to no one in particular, “Can I get somebody who can dunk out here?”
Yes, a joke.
It was heartening to see the hint of a smile in the middle of the ongoing requiem for Cougar basketball, a signal that at least someone invested in the enterprise isn’t consumed with despair.
Better still was that the Cougs carried that same loosey-goosey into their assignment against the 15th-ranked Buffaloes. Actual entertainment and competition was committed in front of 3,122 who might have showed up anticipating another car wreck in the fashion of last week’s debacles in Arizona.
But then came nasty old reality: Colorado 71, WSU 70 in overtime.
Followed by a resumption of the gnashing out there in Cougistan and the monitoring of coach Ken Bone’s vital signs.
In the wake of last year’s 19-loss slog, the projection of a last-place Pac-12 finish and most recently that 25-point horror show in Tucson, it has pretty much been taken for granted that Bone is dead coach walking.
He shrugged off those suggestions last year, and noted this week that “it’s part of the business.”
But he also conceded that he feels “sick for our guys. I’m the head coach and feel the responsibility on my shoulders and I accept that.”
The Cougars’ issues are as they’ve been for some time now: few difference-makers, a lack of depth to accommodate setbacks like leading scorer DaVonte Lacy’s injury absence, the odd (but killing) character risks that have left a personnel void two years running. Now Wazzu is offensively challenged, too. And maybe something else.
“We have to play with confidence and not being scared,” athletic director Bill Moos offered, “and we have to coach that way, too. That’s my message to our guys. Let’s take care of now and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
So does he think Bone is coaching with his job in mind?
“I’m afraid he might be,” Moos said, “and I don’t want that.”
Even if Moos may have contributed to it.
The smoking gun in the debate over Bone’s future is a remark attributed to Moos at a booster gathering in November, as reported by Cougfan.com, noting that he had declined to roll over the coach’s contract after last season – and that such a decision should serve as a “hint.”
Well, leaving a Realtor’s card on Bone’s desk would be a hint, too.
“It may have come across like that,” Moos acknowledged. “But the mere fact that I retained Ken shows I have confidence in him. If this thing ends up that we get hot and get some momentum, there’s a chance there will be an extension.
“If I didn’t believe in him, I would have let him go last year. Money wasn’t a factor.”
Meaning the $2.55 million Bone would have been owed for the rest of the seven-year contract he signed at hiring – and on which two more years beyond this one remain.
“I was fairly abrupt in saying that,” Moos said of his luncheon comment. “But we have Cougar football ascending, and I don’t want to see Cougar basketball continue to descend. We don’t reward not being successful.”
This is not strictly a matter of the win-loss bottom line, necessarily. Death watchers will recall that there were gains on the field in Paul Wulff’s final season as football coach. But the damage to the buzz in the program had long ago been done, and that’s what Moos felt he had to address.
As he does now.
“What we need to do in Cougar basketball one way or another is get a spark, make it exciting,” he said. “I get concerned when the students don’t even show up because they only have to walk four blocks. Basketball has to be the thing to do on whatever night we’re playing or whatever time, and it starts inside out.”
Moos points out that even in its best years, Cougar basketball is only a marginal moneymaker, yet insists his department has invested in the program – citing the practice gym that was his first facility project, revamped locker rooms, the $3.5 million scoreboard, a recruiting budget that is “more than fair” and salary packages that have allowed Bone to rejigger his staff.
“To fill the seats, we’re going to have to invest one way or another – whether it’s with this staff or another one,” he said. “I’m a believer in investing – if there’s a belief there’ll be a return.”
A return with interest, he means.