Washington State Hoops Preview

Over the next few weeks DevilsDigest.com will endeavor to bring you a comprehensive breakdown of the upcoming 2003-2004 basketball season in the Pacific-10 conference. The second part of this multi-part series looks at the Washington State Cougars.

Washington State Cougars (Pullman, Washington)
2002-03 Record: 7-20 (2-16)
Postseason: None
Returning Starters: 4
Head Coach: Dick Bennett (first season)

Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starter(s) in BOLD)

PG: Marcus Moore, 6-5, 208 Sr. (18.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.7 apg, .346 FG% .750 FT%)/
SG: Thomas Kelati, 6-5, 184 Jr. (10.0 ppg, 3.7 apg, .427 FG% .456 3PT% .735 FT%)/
SF: Chris Schlatter, 6-6, 211 Jr. (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .401 FG%, .341 3 PT%, .692 FT%)/
PF: Shami Gill, 6-7, 238 Jr. (6.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg .474 FG% .625 FT%)
C : Ezenwa Ukeagu, 6-8, 253, Sr. (5.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, .500 FG% .741 FT%)

Key Returning Reserves:

Randy Green, 6-4, 180 So. (7.3 ppg, .447 FG% .375 3PT% .733 FT%)
Justin Bellegarde, 6-9, 240 Sr. (10.2 minutes per game in 2002-03)

Key Losses:

Cedrick Hughey (6.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Milton Riley (7.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
Jerry McNair (7.8 ppg)
Justin Lyman (7.6 ppg)

Recruiting Class:

Jeff Varem, 6-6, 235 Jr. (Second team All-American at Vicennes University)
Anthony Grant, 6-5, 190 So. (College of Eastern Utah)
Lance Den Boer, 6-6, 210 Fr. (Sunnyside Christian HS, Sunnyside, Washington)
Justin Garcia, 7-1, 245 Jr. (injured in 2002-03 at San Bernardino Valley CC)
T.J. Paterick, 6-1, 171 Fr. (Nease HS, Pointe Verde, Florida)

Recruiting Class Grade: C-

Varem is a versatile player capable of playing three positions but is probably best suited at small forward. He is the recruit most likely to have an immediate impact on this team due to his ability to rebound, score and defend. Grant has a nice long-range stroke and should see some minutes on the wing as well. It's unlikely that the other three players garner significant minutes this season, and even one of them breaking into the rotation would be mild surprise for the Cougars.

Team Overview:

Over a five-year period at the University of Wisconsin, Dick Bennett resurrected a Badger program that had been long considered almost an afterthought in the Big-10 Conference. The cornerstones of his Badger program -- hard-nosed defense, fundamental, intelligent play and methodical offensive sets -- helped propel the team to consecutive NCAA berths and a Final Four appearance in his final year (1999-2000) at the school.

Bennett will now be asked, after a three-year absence from coaching, to translate his success at a marginal Big-10 program to one in the Pacific-10 Conference at Washington State. It is an unenviable task at a program which has suffered tremendously in recent years, having won no more than six conference games in any single season over the last five years; a program that often plays to a high school-sized home crowd of fewer than 3,000 fans.

The transitional year for Bennett should be eased somewhat by Marcus Moore's decision to pull his name out of the NBA draft. Moore is arguably the conference's best point guard, a player who is the leading returning Cougar in almost every statistical category from scoring average to rebounding to assists per game.

Unfortunately for Bennett, there is little star talent surrounding his starting point guard, despite the fact that the Cougars return four starters from last season. Shooting guard Thomas Kelati is a respectable Pac-10 player; versatile and well rounded he should fit well into the Bennett system. Last year's starting swingman, Chris Schlatter, might be somewhat of a liability defensively in the new alignment, but it remains to be seen if a better alternative will emerge.

Off the bench in the backcourt, the Cougars have a legitimate long-range shooting threat in combo-guard Randy Green, a player who averaged well into double-figures in the second half of conference play last season. Jeff Varem and Anthony Grant should provide the bulk of the minutes off the bench on the wing, with Varem even becoming a possible threat to unseat Schlatter from his starting position. Freshman Lance Den Boer stands a reasonable chance of seeing a limited role off the bench.

Up front, Nigerian Ezenwa Ukeagu is an improving post-player who reminds of a less-refined and marginally skilled version of Ike Diogu, Arizona State's star forward/center. His improvement or lack thereof, more than any other on the roster, might determine how much success visits the Cougars this year. Shamie Gill is a moderately serviceable forward who does a little of everything, but stands out at nothing.

The biggest weakness on the team is a lack of depth in the frontcourt. Jeff Bellegarde's minutes will increase, perhaps as much as double, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The Cougars might be forced to utilize Jeff Garcia here, a player that hasn't played much over the last two seasons at Northern Arizona and San Bernardino respectively or perhaps even play Varem out of position up front.

Interesting Factoids:

-Shamie Gill made 8-14 from the 3 point-line last season…Point guard Marcus Moore is the team's leading returning rebounder…Thomas Kelati is the leading 3 point shooter, percentage-wise, in the Pac-10 at .456%...Washington State lost 14 of its 16 conference games loses by double digits last season…The Cougars were last in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, rebounding defense, and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Best Case Scenario:

The Cougars quickly "buy-in" to Bennett's defensive philosophy and are able to carry it out; Marcus Moore becomes more of a leader and true facilitator of the nascent Cougar offense, the JC transfers are able to heavily contribute and Ezenwa Ukeagu improves more than anticipated resulting in 6 or 7 wins in conference play and an outside shot at the NIT Tournament.

Worst Case Scenario:

Bennett finds out he simply doesn't have the talent to implement his schemes at either end of the floor with any real effectiveness, Moore is unable to quickly adapt to the strikingly different system, Varem and Grant prove to be in over their heads and the play in the post isn't improved.

Outlook:

Marcus Moore is good enough to win a game or two on his own, especially if the Cougars catch a team in Pullman on an off night after a long travel day. Dick Bennett's slow-down style should also be enough to steal a game or two. Problem is, every game the Cougars win this season will have been a steal, with the possible exception being Oregon State. This team will win between two and six games in the Pac-10, our forecast coming down in the middle of that range.

Pac-10 Prediction: 4-14
Postseason Play: None

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