WSU hoops: Burning shirts, sizing up the sked

PULLMAN -- Except for freshman Steven Bjornstad's redshirt being burned, there was little in the way of surprises in Ken Bone's Cougar coaching debut Friday. And little wonder, given that the opposition was Mississippi Valley State. The ultimate gluttons for punishment, the Delta Devils have traveled 1,700 miles each of the past three years to be pasted by Washington State.

The beat-downs read like this: 71-26, 76-25 and now 94-66.

Even though it was Friday the 13th, these devils were bewitched most of the night.

They mosey up Highway 195 on Saturday night to get cuffed around by Gonzaga. The Cougars, meanwhile, have a 3-0 start practically etched in stone, since the underwhelming tag team of Eastern Washington and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne is due in town on Monday and Thursday, respectively.

A 3-0 start elicits yawns in the Palouse these days -- remember 14-0 in 2007-08? -- but a little perspective is in order here. Not only are the Cougars loaded with youth and inexperience this season, but prior to the three-year reign of Tony Bennett, WSU went nine straight seasons without a 3-0 start.

But back to Bjornstad. Bone debated whether to redshirt the 6-10, 217-pound rookie from Vancouver, Wash., but said the team's lack of depth and size inside forced his hand. Bjornstad, a two-time All-State performer at Columbia River High, was initially considered a virtual lock to redshirt so he could bulk up in the weight room. He went scoreless in five minutes of mop-up duty against the Delta Devils.

DeAngelo Casto, who scored a career-best 18 points and blocked 3 shots Friday, is the Cougars' main man down low. But he's "only" 6-8, 231 pounds. There's also lightly experienced 6-10, 222-pound sophomore Charlie Enquist who played 16 minutes Friday, scoring 6 and pulling down 5 rebounds.

That's about where the Cougs' paint patrol ends. At least for now. Bone said another one of his post players, 6-7, 213-pound second-year freshman James Watson, will resume practicing with the Cougars on Saturday and should be ready for the Eastern Washington game. Watson, a redshirt freshman forward, is recovering from his second concussion of preseason workouts. "He's missed 250 practices since he got here," Bone said.


Bjornstad wasn't the only member of his recruiting class to have a potential redshirt burned. Swingman Anthony Brown of Spokane played three minutes at the end of the game. And so did walk on freshman Austin Bragg.

AFTER NEXT WEEK'S TWO GAMES, the Cougars' schedule morphs into an interesting mish-mash of potential routs, likely defeats and a few toss-ups.

The Cougars should be able to handle an inexperienced NCAA Division II team (host Alaska-Anchorage) in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout on Nov. 25. After that, however, WSU faces a Nicholls State (La.) squad with plenty of returning talent after a 20-11 season. If the Cougars advance to the title game in Anchorage, they figure to draw 17th-ranked Oklahoma, still formidable despite the loss of national Player of the Year Blake Griffin.

Next up, challenging road games with Gonzaga (28-6 last season) and Kansas State (22-12) before Wazzu finally returns home Dec. 9 to face an Idaho team with great potential -- not to mention ex-Cougar point guard Mac Hopson. He crossed the border in search of playing time and quickly developed into one of the best players in the Western Athletic Conference, but he probably would have been buried on the bench behind Taylor Rochestie the past two years at WSU.

The Cougars close out non-conference play with three holiday "home" games outside Pullman. Air Force should be a pushover Dec. 12 in Spokane; Portland State looks vulnerable Dec. 19 in Kennewick after losing Bone and a ton of seniors who played in the past two NCAA tournaments; and the Louisiana State game Dec. 22 in Seattle pits the Cougars against a Tiger squad that lost just about everyone of note off last year's 27-8 NCAA tourney qualifiers.

The tea leaves here say the Cougars come out of this with an 8-4 record heading into conference play. Not bad, not bad at all for a team with one upperclassman and just one Friel Court appearance in the six weeks leading up to the start of Pac-10 play on New Year's Eve against visiting Oregon.

The Ducks will be improved after going with youth last year, but they're certainly beatable. Same for Oregon State, the surprise team of the Pac-10 a year ago, but an outfit that opponents will be better prepared to handle this time around (read: they won't be lulled to sleep by that offensive offense, or lack thereof).

Then comes a road trip to Arizona and Arizona State, and both teams are down from a year ago. Thus, a 4-0 start in the Pac-10 is not impossible for WSU, but that's asking a lot of a young team. A split of those first four conference games would not be a terrible thing, and 3-1 would be cause for celebration.

At any rate, the Cougars will probably get all they can handle Jan. 14 at home against California. The Bears and Washington are clearly the frontrunners in the Pac-10, but WSU's games with the two projected powerhouses are spaced out -- and never underestimate the Cougars when they're reveling in the role of underdog against dem Dawgs.


* The 94 points Friday was WSU's top mark since a 98-76 win over Washington on March 1, 2003. You have to go back to a 104-62 win over Central Connecticut State on Nov. 22, 1991 to find a Cougar team that scored more points in a season opener. "I felt we did a very good job in transition," said sophomore forward DeAngelo Casto, who scored a career-high 18 points.

* Mississippi Valley State loaded up with junior college transfers after a 7-25 season a year ago, but they were still badly outmanned by Washington State. The undersized Cougars blasted their similarly small guests 50-25 on the boards, including 24-9 on the offensive glass. "I thought our effort on the boards was outstanding," Bone said. "Particularly Abe Lodwick, DeAngelo and Nik Koprivica … they were just warriors on the glass."

* Klay Thompson led all players with 20 points. Bone complimented Thompson on his improved effort at working his way into the paint on offense, but the coach chided the 6-foot-6 guard for being the only one of the 10 Cougars who played in the first half to not grab a rebound. Thompson had five boards after intermission. "We just need to keep pushing his buttons," Bone said. "He's already good, but he can be better."

* Bone was delighted with WSU's 50 rebounds and 20 assists, but he expressed disappointment with the Cougars' defense, or lack thereof. As for the team's 19 turnovers, Bone joked, "I'm glad it wasn't on TV and have (ex-Cougar coach) Dick Bennett back home in Wisconsin seeing that. That would be embarrassing."

* Mississippi Valley coach Sean Woods said he questions WSU's depth and defense, but he likes how the Cougars have a number of capable shooters, and he was impressed with freshman point guard Reggie Moore. "He's going to be pretty good," Woods said. Thompson seconded the motion after Moore racked up 10 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals and three turnovers in 26 minutes. "He's doing a great job … obviously, he's got a great future," Thompson said.

* The 6-7 Lodwick has never lived up to his reputation out of high school as a great 3-point shooter, but he's adjusting well to Bone's need for him to work inside more to help a team short on inside muscle. "I'm really excited," said Lodwick, who missed 5 of 6 field-goal attempts but grabbed a career-high nine rebounds. "The last two years, I spent most of the time on the bench watching guys like (2008-09 seniors) Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest do the type of thing I'm expected to do. I learned from the best."

* Bone said the Cougars were too unselfish at times, perhaps unnerved when he criticized them for taking bad shots. "What I really appreciate about this group so far is they're extremely coachable," Bone said. "They are really trying hard to please us, almost to a fault."

* The Cougars outscored Mississippi Valley 40-12 in the paint and had a 24-4 edge in second-half points. Marcus Capers (10 points, seven rebounds) and Koprivica (nine points, for rebounds) were active around the basket.

* Despite a light snowfall, the game drew 9,188. Monday's 7 p.m. game with visiting Eastern Washington will be televised on FSN.

* The Cougars have never lost a November game in Friel Court. That's 35 wins and counting.

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