Cougs lack PG? Think again, says Woolridge

PULLMAN – Ken Bone has said it before. So have others: Royce Woolridge is not a natural point guard. The redshirt junior loves hearing that. There's been no better motivational tool. After spending hours studying film and getting advice from a former NBA point guard, Woolridge says he and the Cougs have a chip on their shoulder and a stronger bond. It's even found in the way they break the huddle.

During practice this offseason, the Cougs began breaking their huddles by saying, "Family on three…"

Bone and the Cougar coaches told them when it comes to words like that, they need to be backed up with actions. Woolridge said he and his teammates have been doing exactly that. And when it comes to the point, Woolridge says he's all-in.

"Point guard is something I feel like I can play, I love it when people say we don't have a point guard or I'm not a point guard because I'm working hard at being a point guard and I feel like I can prove a lot of people wrong ... I think that'll show this year," Woolridge said in a lengthy interview with this week.

During the offseason, Woolridge said he watched tapes of his favorite point guard, Chris Paul of the Clippers, in order to improve at the position he played for the first time ever last year. He said he's comfortable with the role now and credits some of his recent development to absorbing knowledge from his godfather, Negele Knight, who played six seasons in the NBA as a point guard.

"What I want to do is whatever the team needs me to do, as a point guard I feel like that's my responsibility," Woolridge said. "If it's getting people the ball, getting assists -- I can do that. If it's scoring, we need a bucket in crunch time -- I can do that. I want to take that role as a leader and as a point guard to let the other teammates know that I've got us, I've got our back, I'm here if you need me -- whatever you need me to do, I can handle it.

"Basically being point guard you've gotta know where everybody is, you've gotta know how all your players want to play and where they like to shoot from. I just learned how to do that. I learned how to find people, more emphasis on passing the ball or penetrating and maybe passing it, finding the open man instead of penetrating and trying to finish."

THE PHOENIX NATIVE SAYS he isn't the only one getting better by playing with a chip on his shoulder. After being picked to finish last in the Pac-12 this season by the media, Woolridge said the entire team is playing with an added edge.

"It's tough to hear that," said Woolridge. "It puts a chip on your shoulder, though. At first I wasn't really mad, it just made me feel as if we have something to prove…(it) makes you want to work harder We definitely had a chip on our shoulder before that. It just adds to the fire. We don't really want to back down from anybody. We think we could be as good as anybody else in the Pac-12. We definitely don't feel like we're No. 12 but you gotta prove it before you say anything."

IN ORDER TO DO THAT, there are two pivotal elements the Cougs are likely to lean on this season -- pressure defense and three point shooting. While some facets of the new defensive scheme are a work in progress, Woolridge said one thing is certain already, they've got the pressure part of it down pat and that it was noticeable in the exhibition game. Of the new defensive rules, Woolridge said rather than making adjustments in terms of technique, it's more important to stay sound mentally in order to avoid foul trouble all season long.

"(The defense) will still be effective -- we just have to play solid, pressure without fouling which is gonna take a couple games to get used to because we're not used to all the fouls. But once we get used to it, we'll be fine…It's more of a mental thing -- just don't put your hands on them because they're calling the fouls, so play without having your hand on the offensive person."

It was also plain to see in the exhibition game win over Central that there is no hesitation by the Cougs to put shots up from long range. Indeed, the Cougs hoisted 27 shots from beyond the arc. That's a trend Woolridge says will continue.

"It's really important -- we want to be the best three point shooting team in the Pac-12 and we can do that because we have some great shooters on our team," he said.

One of those is expected to be redshirt freshman Que Johnson - he hoisted up four three-point shots but knocked down only one of them. Johnson sat out last season to get his academic house in order and hasn't played in an official game since 2012. But Woolridge said he expects it won't be long before all the talk about Johnson's rust will be forgotten.

"He's getting close. He has his first exhibition under his belt, he's been playing well in practices. I feel like it's going to take him maybe a couple games and he'll be fine. That happens to everybody when they first start playing again," said Woolridge.

MEANWHILE, WOOLRIDGE HAS TAKEN it upon himself to mentor rookie back-court mate Ike Iroegbu.

"Ike is really talented, Ike is going to be really good," said Woolridge. "I try to tell him to keep his head, not to get so frustrated when he makes mistakes. Every day is a battle between us - I make sure there's no days where we're being soft. If we're gonna be out there, we're gonna have to battle. I think that's good for him. I teach him a couple of my tricks every once in a while."

Woolridge's competitive edge came during his high school years, he said, where he struggled early on before breaking through and winning a championship his junior season. He said through those early lean times and even during his one-year stint with Kansas, he always hated to lose. Woolridge left Kansas in search of more playing time and now after his first full season in Pullman, he says the losing stops now.

"I feel like this year that'll change," said Woolridge. "It's all about your mentality. Our mentality at Kansas was, 'We're not losing' and I feel like now that I'm a leader and (DaVonté Lacy) is a captain, we all have the same mindset. We're not gonna settle for mediocrity. We didn't come here to lose, we came here to win games so that's what we're trying to do."

WOOLRIDGE SAID IN ADDITION TO being close with his godfather, Knight, who has long played a huge role in his basketball development, he is especially close with his mother, Victoria, who has been a best friend and support system whenever he needed it.

While his mother is still often able to see him play live, another supporter who tracked his career from a distance is no longer here -- his late father Orlando Woolridge, the sixth overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls who played 15 years as a pro.

Although the elder Woolridge was not a major factor as he was growing up, Royce said his dad always kept up with him and knew how he was performing. Before his death in May of 2012, the younger Woolridge got a chance to speak with him. And that was big.

"It's definitely tough, but I got to see him right before he died, I got to talk to him -- he's just at peace now," said Woolridge. "So it's sad to see him go but I know he's in a better place now, and it was good to see him right before.

"He just told me he was proud of me. That he's proud to see where I'm at, and basketball-wise he was proud of me. It was just good to hear that from him."

WSU opens the season on Friday against CSU Bakersfield (TV: Pac-12 Networks, 7:00 pm)

In addition to his father and Knight, Woolridge has a great-uncle who also played in the NBA: New York Knicks legend and NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed.

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