The never-ending ghost of Moore vs. Thames

WITH THE COUGS finally breaking through Wednesday for their first Pac-12 win in four tries, the building tension among the angst-ridden crimson faithful figures to subside for at least a few days. Which offers up the perfect chance to raise a question or two.

Namely, whatever happened to Nick Witherill?

Who, you ask?

And what, you may also wonder, does he have to do with anything?

The answer to the first question is that Witherill wrapped up his college career last season at Division II Grand Canyon University, where he averaged 8.9 points per game as a part-time starter.

The short answer to the second question is that Witherill was part of the six-man recruiting class Tony Bennett brought in to replenish the Cougar cupboard in 2008. Nick had been offered, and accepted, a scholarship to WSU two years earlier as a high school sophomore from the Phoenix area.


The third question -- what does he have to do with anything? -- will be addressed shortly.

First, though, a little background.

When Witherill arrived in Pullman in 2008, he was billed as a combo guard with high-octane competitiveness and a nice stroke from downtown. But it became pretty clear that, despite his tenacity, the road to playing time was going to be a long one. A very long one.

He didn't have the quicks or ball-handling skills to compete in the Pac-10. And the same could be said, though not nearly to the degree, for fellow combo guard and recruiting class compatriot Michael Harthun.

So with Taylor Rochestie's pending graduation, Bennett made it Priority No. 1 to grab a point guard in his 2009 recruiting class.

Bennett found his man in Xavier Thames, outdueling San Diego State, UNLV and Iowa State to get him. Thames, from the Sacramento area, had all but been promised a starting job with the Cougs for 2009. And for good reason, given the state of the roster at the time.

Thames signed his letter of intent with WSU in November 2008, during the early signing period. That was right about the time Reggie Moore was being granted a release from the LOI he had signed with Fresno State a year prior. Moore had gone to a prep academy on the East Coast out of Rainier Beach High rather than college and, with his academic house in order, was ready to broaden his hoops horizons.

As the spring signing period for the 2009 recruiting class closed in, and Moore's lean toward Washington evaporated with the Huskies' signing of Abdul Gaddy, offers from Cal, Oregon, Memphis and Iowa State were on the table, and UCLA was talking about getting him to Westwood for an official visit.

Bone, who was hired at Washington State just two weeks before the start of the spring signing period, jumped into the Moore sweepstakes with full force.

Why? And why so aggressively when Thames had just reiterated his crimson allegiance to Bone even though his guy, Bennett, was off to Virginia?


Because it was clear neither Witherill nor Harthun were ball-handling options. And between the two, Harthun was the better shooting guard, thus leaving Bone with a guard, Witherill, effectively taking up space, and leaving his team with few options at the point aside from the starter.

In short, Bone badly needed another guard like Thames, who could feed Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, and also score some on his own. Moore was a combo, but it was obvious from his time at Rainier Beach and Seattle Rotary that the potential was there for running the point.

In late April 2009, Moore signed his LOI with the Cougs. His addition was hailed, and widely viewed as the tangible benefit of having a head coach so closely wired to the talent-rich Seattle basketball community.

"His ability to score in a variety of ways and also deliver the ball to others is what we were looking for," Bone said of Moore when the LOI was announced.

By the season opener on Nov. 9, Moore was firmly ensconced as the starting point guard.

All of which is ancient history.

But following the Cougars' first three conference games this season -- all losses -- those early days of the Bone Era have come under scrutiny from some of the faithful.

The trigger, of course, is the fact Moore should be running the point this season, but isn't, and his absence was glaring in those losses to three imminently beatable teams to start the Pac-12 portion of the schedule.

Mike Ladd and Royce Woolridge, the two Cougs who have been called upon to fill Moore's role at the point, are solid players. But they have never been point guards. They are learning their way in a position that requires less concern about creating your own shot and more about helping others get theirs.

The Pac-12 is unforgiving. You need someone at the point who can direct the team with confidence while at the same being comfortable attacking the rim, converting, and making free throws.

It takes time.

In the latter part of last season and during the tour of Australia over the summer, that's exactly what Moore was bringing each night. This season was to be his supryme adieu.

Instead, he let his team and school down in breathtaking fashion. The Cougs are just 1-3 in conference play because of it.

In turn, many fans have been wringing their hands over what-might-have-been. Namely, what-might-have-been if Xavier Thames had remained in crimson?

Bone should have chosen Thames over Moore in 2009, and now it's biting us in the rear!

Thames transferred to San Diego State after his freshman year, and has been a mainstay for a very good Aztecs team. While he didn't say it at the time, the reason for his transfer was pretty clear: He was second string to a guy in his same class year.

As freshmen, Moore started 30 of 31 games and averaged 32.5 minutes per outing. Thames averaged 17.6 a game and started once.

Exhibit A in the case against Bone?


The reason for that discrepancy in playing time between the two is as old as the game itself: Moore beat out Thames for the job.

There was a competition and there was a victor. One of the cornerstones of sports.

Anyone who watched any length of practice leading up to that 2009-10 season can attest there was absolutely no question who the starting point guard should be. Moore was convincing. Granted, Thames had some hurdles with the NCAA Clearinghouse, which limited his participation in early fall workouts, and there may have been some health hiccups as well. But even well into the season, it was obvious Moore was the stronger player.

And now message board and water cooler chatter is lighting up Bone for not choosing Thames over Moore four years ago. Because if he had gone with X, the thinking goes, the Cougs wouldn't be struggling; their senior point guard would actually be in the lineup instead of transferring to Western Washington under a dark cloud.

It reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live skit, "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at Waterloo?"

It's a preposterous mental exercise that ranks up there with SNL's equally amusing "What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?"

And therein resides the essence of the ongoing Moore vs. Thames debate.

Napoleon didn't have a B-52 at Waterloo. And Ken Bone didn't have Magic Johnson to choose over Reggie Moore in the fall of 2009. He had Xavier Thames, and Reggie beat out X convincingly.

Bone chose Reggie over Xavier because Reggie gave the Cougars a better chance at winning.

Simple as that.

The coach wanted to win. At that moment, that season, just like he wants to win right now, this season.

Similarly, he recruited Reggie in the first place, after discovering that Nick Witherill couldn't play at this level, because Reggie made the team stronger.

At the end of the day, it's all about putting yourself in position to win at this moment in time.

To look back and say those early decisions by Bone were somehow misguided is fandom at its worst.

I have no problem with coaches coming under scrutiny from the faithful. Coaches make a mint and we're the ones picking up the tab.

But if the criticism is to carry any weight, with this team, this season, the ongoing obsession with Xavier Thames ought to be stowed permanently because it's no more valid than Mrs. Roosevelt's ability to take wing.


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