Seldom has the bar been raised so quickly, so unexpectedly, for a major sports program at Washington State University.
“Notches in the ladder,” WSU women’s basketball coach Kamie Ethridge called them at Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco.
A few hours earlier, the conference announced its preseason predictions, with the Cougars picked to finish sixth – hardly remarkable until you consider the context.
One year earlier, the Cougs were picked for last, and it wasn’t even close – the usual expectations for a program seemingly forever in rebuilding mode.
All of that was swept away last year.
Technically, the Cougars broke even – they were 12-12 overall – but it felt a lot better than that. WSU won some big games, broke into the Top 25 for the first time in program history and reached the NCAA Tournament for only the second time.
Inevitably, that leads to higher expectations, especially since WSU returns all five starters and the coach began Tuesday’s interview by addressing the “need to do this every year.”
“You have to have your eyes on the bigger prizes,” said Ethridge, whose third year began without program scoring leader Borislava Hristova and slick point guard Chanelle Molina. The pair had accounted for more than half the Cougars’ points and seemingly most of their talent.
But Ethridge, an NCAA and Olympic champion, knows winners when she sees them. Asked a year ago about incoming freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker, she didn’t hesitate.
“She’s going to be a star, and she has an otherworldly IQ,” Ethridge said.
In the bargain, the Cougars got Leger-Walker’s older sister Krystal, who followed Ethridge from Northern Colorado.
A year later, the sisters talked about the chemistry, of “let’s make some noise,” Krystal said Tuesday.
That didn’t happen immediately as the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for only a handful of nonconference games.
Then came the ride – exhilarating home wins over Oregon State and eventual national finalist Arizona, followed by a brief appearance in the rankings, some narrow losses and finally a closing rush that sent the Cougars to the NCAAs for the first time since 1991.
“And now we have almost our whole team back, so we don’t have to start building that chemistry again,” Charlisse said.
The talent is there. Charlisse was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. Krystal, a fifth-year senior, and Johanna Tedder of Estonia also shot well from outside, and frontcourt starters Ula Motuga and Bella Murakatete are improving.
“She’s probably our most athletic player,” Ethridge said of Murakatete, a 6-foot-3 junior from Rwanda. “This year you will see a night-and-day difference in her.”
Ethridge is a realist, however, after three seasons in the rugged Pac-12. If anything, the conference is getting better, given that Arizona lost the NCAA title game to Stanford. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA are also picked ahead of the Cougars.
Still, this is the highest preseason pick for WSU since 2009-10, when it was slotted for sixth in the Pac-10.
Ethridge took some credit for the players “taking on our coaching staff’s personality … learning how to move the ball around and create plays for themselves and others.”
“The development of all that leads to high-level basketball,” Ethridge said.
But will it be high enough to put another few notches on the ladder?
“We want to be gritty and passionate, but we have to play with a lot of IQ,” Ethridge said. “We can’t rely just on talent, because we don’t have a lot of that.”
WSU will get the season off to an unofficial start on Oct. 24 when the Cougars host Saint Martin’s for an exhibition contest at Beasley Coliseum.
The Cougars kick off the regular season on Nov. 9, when they host San Jose State.