SEATTLE — They don’t have a column for “good guys” or “trying hard,” so the most trenchant summary of the 2012-13 men’s basketball program at Washington State is not a flattering one:
The Cougars haven’t beaten a single team in the RPI computer’s top 150. After playing for three months, WSU is 0-12 against what is essentially the better half of Division I basketball.
Below that is mostly a vast sea of irrelevance, a station the Cougars are desperately trying to avoid, but not very successfully.
Wednesday night, they clunked into undisputed last place in the Pac-12 by losing at home to Oregon State, 67-66. What fans saw was familiar: The Cougars play hard, they often hold second-half leads, but there are simply too few difference-making players on the floor, especially since head coach Ken Bone dismissed point guard Reggie Moore in September for violating team rules.
The defeat dropped Bone’s record in Pac-10/12 games over four seasons to 24-42, months after athletic director Bill Moos said in a Seattle Times online chat that he expected the team to be “competing in the mid-to-upper tiers of the Pac-12.”
Through it all, Bone told The Times earlier this week, “I love the guys in the program. Even yesterday, we had a great practice. Attitudes are right, effort is right.”
The program’s struggles pose not only immediate questions, but some philosophical ones. In a mere dozen years, WSU has experienced the most polar results in its history — the Paul Graham abyss (9-63 in four years of Pac-10 play), and the ascent to the Sweet 16 in 2008 under Tony Bennett.
Those are wild swings that might dull the senses.
Exactly what should be the big-picture expectation of WSU basketball?
Moos said last week his expectation is much the same as it is for all WSU sports, that the program find its bearings somewhere in the upper six of the league, and in a good year, with some breaks, crash the NCAA tournament.
Yet it takes players to do that, and it’s obvious that’s where WSU has fallen short. It’s what caused Bone to juggle his staff last spring and add assistant Ray Lopes.
Subjectively, not taking into account anybody who hasn’t yet appeared in a WSU uniform, the Cougars’ best recruits under Bone are Moore; sophomore guard DaVonte Lacy, recently emerging from a sophomore shooting slump; Faisal Aden, the shoot-first-shoot-second guard who was done last year; and Mike Ladd, the senior transfer from Fresno State having the best season among the Cougars (but now dealing with a knee issue).
Collectively, that’s hardly a road map to the NCAA tournament.
Bone inherited two years of NBA lottery choice Klay Thompson and defensive standout DeAngelo Casto. There’s a line of thinking that Bone had to do some culture-changing from the Bennett regime after Thompson, Casto and Moore were all busted on marijuana charges in 2011.
Yet Moore was a late recruit by the Bone staff, and last fall, after the Cougars added Jackson High and Oregon transfer Brett Kingma, he also was nailed for a marijuana violation.
Bone says the multiple arrests two years ago led him to a thorough soul-search of the program.
“We’ve put a huge, huge emphasis on character,” he said. “What happened there a couple of years ago, it’s on me, because I was the head coach. I’d never in my life been associated with something like that.
“I would sit in my office and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I never thought that guys breaking the law would interfere with my success, or lack, in being a successful basketball coach.”
So they dig deeper now, they make the extra phone call to check recruits’ backgrounds, and Bone said, “There were a couple that shied away from us.”
Bone’s biggest ally might be a document in a file cabinet in Bohler Gym. With only four years of Division I head-coaching experience at low-major Portland State, Bone was signed by former AD Jim Sterk to an unusual seven-year contract approved by president Elson Floyd, and would be due some $2.55 million if he were replaced this year.
When the current roster of coaches was originally hired by Pac-12 schools, it’s believed that only Arizona’s Sean Miller and Oregon’s Dana Altman landed seven-year deals. (Sterk, now at San Diego State, didn’t respond to two messages to explain his rationale.)
Moos, who says he will evaluate Bone at season’s end, made a major financial commitment when he hired Mike Leach to coach football, and would be hard-pressed to bear another financial hit. Still, the dismissal of Paul Wulff after four years was based heavily on Moos’ ability to attract Leach, and it can’t be ruled out that he might keep his ear to the ground again.
Meanwhile, Bone, who once had a successful 12-year tenure at Seattle Pacific, sees hope for the future. Sitting out are academic partial qualifier DeMarquise Johnson, a 6-foot-5 scoring wing recruited by both Washington and Gonzaga; a big-bodied, if limited, 6-11 transfer from Iowa State, Jordan Railey; and incoming is 6-1 point guard Ike Iroegbu, a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, whom Bone calls “very gifted,” with “explosiveness to the rim.”
Said Bone, “I look at next year’s team as one with some pretty good pieces.”
It will need to be. Otherwise, Bone’s story will recall that of WSU coach Kevin Eastman in the late ‘90s — good person, good coach, but a guy who couldn’t get enough good players to Pullman.