Could WSU hoops schedule be built any worse?

STEVE KELLEY, the retired Seattle Times columnist, used to “interview” his alter ego – the aptly named Jim Ratt – every now and then when searching for answers about something going on with the Seattle Sonics. I was never a huge fan of Jim Ratt, but it dawned on me one day that I have my own version of Jim to chat with. Except mine isn’t a fictional character in the corner of my mind.

He’s co-founder Greg Witter.

Greg will be the first tell you he is no basketball savant, but the truth is he does watch the game a little differently than the Average Joe and his knowledge of Cougar hoops history is mind-blowing. While far from a high level of competition, he coached CYO ball for years. And he will be returning to the sidelines this season for a ninth and final campaign, leading a group of high school senior girls in Seattle’s Citywide League.

That doesn't make him a basketball wonk, but I find myself intrigued by his thoughts on Cougar hoops because he sees the game of basketball through a more technical lens than I do. Part of that comes from an amazing array of coaches whose brains he's picked over the years -- a list that ranges in scope from Marv Harshman and the Bennetts to Lorenzo Romar, June Daugherty, Tom Newell and Seattle shot guru Troy Miles.

I have learned he has an affinity for creative in-bounds plays, dabbles with the box-and-one, and is driven to distraction by untucked elbows and unnecessary fall-aways.

So with the Cougars off to an 0-2 start after an embarrassing showing at TCU, I turned to him for some insight.

“You do remember that much of my work with a whistle was simply trying to corral a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds, right?” he says when I tell him I’m trying to get a handle on the 2014-15 Cougars.

While I’m prepared to start with basics like ball care, blocking out or shooting mechanics, he goes in a different direction.

“The schedule for this team couldn’t have been structured worse,” he says plainly.

“The Cougs needed to open this season with a bunch of home cookin' against schools like Bucknell, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Utah Valley and Incarnate Word -- teams you can gain some confidence against ... The Cougs won 10 games last season, they have a new coaching staff, new roles, and a number of new players -- they needed a soft start.”

You can almost hear the shaking of his head over the phone.

“Instead, they opened on the road in front of 10,000 against UTEP and then turned around to play against a physical TCU team in a Fort Worth high school gym that had all the energy of a funeral home. Now it’s home for one (6 p.m. tonight vs. Idaho State, Pac-12 Networks Washington) and then right back on the road for three at the Great Alaska Shootout.

"Really, it’s hard to imagine a worse itinerary out of the gate for a team that needs some successes to build on, some sustained confidence.”

Five of the Cougars' first seven games of the season are on the road. Ernie Kent subtly hinted in his press briefing Thursday that a gentler, home-focused beginning to the season might have been good.

If there is a silver lining to this sobering start, it’s that the Cougs will be battle tested and ready for the road when conference games begin. And the road will begin early, as WSU's first three Pac-12 games are at Stanford, Cal and UW, a combined 6-0 so far this season.

Kent said Thursday that it's time to burn the film from the TCU game. I agree. That game was ugly in every way, and that's being generous.

At UTEP, had the Cougs hit just some of their open shots, that game could have been very interesting down the stretch. At TCU, a completely different WSU team showed up.

Kent has used the phrase ‘baby steps’ a couple of times already this season to describe the process of improvement.

"If the Cougars can stay mentally tough, those baby steps could eventually lead to strides," opines Witter. "That might be the biggest factor right now, being mentally tough enough to get through this road slog."

Jim Ratt couldn’t have said it any better.

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