Everything seemed to be going to plan in Pullman at the end of the 2008/2009 season. Even though the Cougs had lost Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low, and Robbie Cowgill, they remained competitive throughout the season and even earned an NIT berth. The terrific freshman trio of Kyle Thompson, DeAngelo Casto, and Marcus Capers emerged to form arguably the best young nucleus in the Pac 10. However, the program was hit by a stunning development when Tony Bennett, who had turned down some of the premier jobs in the country over the past couple of years, unexpectedly accepted the head coaching job at the University of Virginia. Bennett seemed to be perfectly content in Pullman, and had a young group of guys that seemed destined to lead Washington St. back to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
Much credit must be given to Jim Sterk, the Athletic Director at Washington St., as he did a terrific job of moving past the departure of Bennett and found a perfect replacement in Ken Bone. Gonzaga fans know the quality of coach that Bone is, as he led Portland St. into the MAC last season and helped lead the Vikings to one of the most stunning losses in recent Gonzaga history. Bone led Portland St. to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, and did a remarkable job of keeping together, and even adding to, the highly touted recruiting class that Bennett had established before he left. Bone will certainly bring a more energetic and high tempo feel to the Washington St. program, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Cougs continue their return to prominence under him.Last Season: Everyone around the Wazzu program knew that last season would be a rebuilding year. There are very few programs in the country that could rebound from losing a trio like Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low, and Robbie Cowgill. As was expected, the team struggled against some of the better competition on the schedule early in the season. Non-conference losses to Gonzaga, Baylor, Pitt, and LSU were nothing to be embarrassed about, and it was clear that each game showed dramatic improvement and chemistry for the young Cougs. It seemed like that the Pac 10 might have been too much for this team to handle, as they started conference play with a 5-9 record. However, everything started to gel during the impressive 82-81 victory at UCLA, and WSU closed out their Pac 10 season by winning three of their final four games. The terrific play towards the end of the season was enough to earn a spot in the NIT and a first round game against St. Mary's. Unfortunately, the postseason was only one game for WSU, as the season ended with a 68-57 loss in Moraga.
New Faces: If this team is able to surprise a lot of people like some think they might be able to, a lot of credit will have to be given to Tony Bennett. Prior to his departure, Bennett was able to put together a very talented group of recruits, highlighted by Brock Motum. Motum continues the tradition of big guys from Australia. The 6'9 center had a terrific performance for Australia at the FIBA U-19 championships, and much is expected of him during his career at WSU. Another exciting newcomer is Xavier Thames. Thames, who received some interest from Gonzaga early in the recruiting process, is an exciting combo guard who will make an immediate impact. The Sacramento native is very quick and he plays with great energy. Knowing that this team will push the ball much more under Ken Bone, it wouldn't be surprising to see Thames push for a starting spot. Reggie Moore should also be able to compete for some minutes as a true freshman at point guard. Moore didn't receive the recruiting attention he should have during the process, and was generally considered a huge pick up for WSU. The rest of the class is filled out by two other talented guys who might not contribute as much this season. Anthony Brown is a small forward from Spokane, and he should be a nice complimentary option for this team in a couple years. Steven Bjornstad is a highly 6'10 prospect, who originally committed to Nevada. However, he signed with WSU after Mark Fox left for the University of Georgia. Once Bjornstad adds strength to this frame, he will be an excellent player.
Players to watch: There were more than a few nervous days after new broke that Tony Bennett was leaving for Virginia. Most of the nerves surrounded the fear that the Cougs might see one of their outstanding freshman transfer out of the program. However, in arguably his greatest piece of recruiting, Bone was able to keep Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto, and Marcus Capers in Pullman. Thompson was outstanding as a freshman and has to be considered one of the elite shooters in the country. His ability to score has seen him projected as a future NBA talent, and its clear that Ken Bone certainly agrees.
He’s just a great shooter. He’s a great, great possibly NBA type shooter. We’d like to make him into a little bit more into a scorer where he is scoring in a variety of ways of which one would be getting more to the free throw line. Last year I believe it was 29 free throws attempted on the year. And he played 30 games. And I think he played about 33 minutes a game. So we’re trying to get him a little more aggressive offensively and looking for ways to score and attack the rim instead of just being a shooter."
Thompson will be complimented by fellow USA U-19 team member, DeAngelo Casto. Casto, who injured his knee over the summer, is a big body that plays with great energy and aggressiveness on both ends of the court. As he continues to develop his offensive game, Casto will become even more of a weapon on for this team. However, at this point, his role is generally as an energy guy and a defensive stopper. Marcus Capers has the type of length and athleticism to be the shut down defender on the perimeter for Wazzu. Capers isn't a great scorer, but with more expected of him this year, he will likely look to shoot and attack the rim with greater regularity. What sets Capers apart from the rest of the team is the athleticism and versatility he presents. Here is what Bone said of Capers:
"I love the length and quickness Marcus Capers brings to the floor. He really adds a dimension that we don’t have a whole lot of. His athleticism and how bouncy he is and the way he gets around the court is really going to help us."
Concerns: Although it's a young group, WSU has tremendous depth and talent in the back court. Klay Thompson highlights the group, but with guys like Xavier Thames, Marcus Capers, Reggie Moore, and Nikola Koprivica available, this could be a tough match up for the Zags if the guards don't develop the way the coaching staff hopes. Obviously Meech, Gray, and Bouldin will be fine, but if GJ, Gibbs, Kong, and Arop can't provide depth or production on the bench, then the Zags could struggle to handle the depth and talent that the Cougs can throw at them.
What we are watching for: I couldn't be more excited to see how Elias and Rob handle the interior duo of Motum and Casto for the Cougs. In Motum and Casto, the Zags will be facing two polar opposites in terms of skill sets, but they are the perfect compliment for each other. Motum is highly skilled and can finish with his back-to-the-basket or when he is facing up. Casto does not have a refined post game at this point, but he is incredibly dangerous on the boards and in transition. Elias and Rob will need to develop a chemistry and rhythm both offensively and defensively in order to handle the skill and energy that Motum and Casto will offer.