Seeing is believing: The Cougs are for real

SEATTLE -- Listen up, Cougar fans. Diehard, crimson-is-my-favorite-color loyalists, line up to the right. Whoa-is-me, the Cougs-never-get-a-break pessimists, line up to the left. Fair-weather, I'm-always-behind-you-as-long-as-you're-ahead-on-the-scoreboard schmoozers -- you know who you are -- line up in the middle. There. Three distinct fan bases.

Three groups with no common theme that bonds them in regard to their take on Washington State athletics, right?

Wrong. They all have one thing in common with virtually every fan in America: They never, ever, EVER thought Wazzu would be entering the Pac-10 season with a 10-2 record in men's basketball. Tuesday night's thrilling 72-70 overtime win against Louisiana State -- before a record-setting, roaring crowd of 15,341 at KeyArena -- was just one more layer of frosting on the cake.

The Cougars faced a well-coached, disciplined opponent and didn't buckle when adversity reared its head. There was Koprivica diving for loose balls. Casto fighting to get to the rim. And Thompson getting hot when it mattered most.

And just like that the Cougars have 10 wins and are inching closer to the top 25.

KOPRIVICA: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists vs. LSU in a season-high 32 minutes of action.

What the Cougars have accomplished is borderline amazing. A new coach; four new starters; one upperclassman on the roster; a drastic change in style of play; one game in Pullman the past four weeks; and still the Cougars sit atop the Pac-10 standings.

Mind you, we're talking about non-conference records. The real stuff starts up next Thursday versus Oregon in Pullman, and it is essential to keep in mind that the Cougars have not won a conference championship in men's basketball -- not one single, solitary title -- since 1940-41.

Take your pick on what is more mind-boggling: That the Cougars have not won a conference championship in almost 70 years, or that a team starting four sophomores and a freshman point guard is 10-2 with a four-game winning streak heading into conference play.

More good news: Oregon and Oregon State, WSU's first two Pac-10 foes, come to Friel Court.

Even better news: The Ducks (7-4) and Beavers (5-5) are eminently beatable.

Best news yet: The entire Pac-10 has not been this weak since players wore short shorts.

How are the Cougars doing it? Well, start at the top.

Ken Bone, who looks like a mild-mannered junior high science teacher, is instead a highly innovative mad scientist. He had the courage to barge into Pullman and instantly replace the very foundation of the greatest three-year run in WSU history -- defense, defense and, when in doubt, more defense -- with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later-if-you-have-time offense that is putting up some of the best numbers in the country.

It was Bone, the ink barely dry on his contract, who lured Reggie Moore to Pullman after being hired last April. Not only has Moore expertly operated WSU's high-tempo offense as a freshman point guard, but the arrival of Moore opened the door to the talent-rich Seattle recruiting base that Bone mined so successfully for years as head coach at Seattle Pacific and an assistant at Washington.

Bone also deserves considerable credit for shouting from the mountaintops from the outset that Klay Thompson was, is and always will be the centerpiece of WSU's offense. Basically, Bone told Thompson to shoot the ball until his arms fall off, then look for the Krazy Glue.

If any jealousy exists among the other players, it has yet to surface in any way, shape or form, at least publicly. True, it is infinitely easier to keep the natives in line when your team is 10-2 and the man shooting the ball all the time ranks among the national leaders with 25 points per game.

Let's give Thompson's teammates the benefit of doubt. Let's presume they possess enough maturity and intelligence to recognize that they are playing with someone who has the potential to become the first truly outstanding NBA player ever produced by Washington State.

One man can't win by his lonesome, of course. Thompson, the only returning player who averaged more than 4.4 points, 4.0 rebounds or 1.6 assists per game last season, has an able supporting cast that features the dazzling Moore.

DeAngelo Casto brings great athleticism and energy to the post, and he is a momentum-changing shot blocker. Marcus Capers, a gifted defender, has made marked improvement on offense. Nikola Koprivica and Abe Lodwick are finally living up to their reputations as deadly outside shooters while making the incredibly difficult adjustment from natural wings to WSU's version of power forwards. Athletic freshmen reserves Xavier Thames, James Watson and Brock Motum show flashes of potential.

Is it too early to start dreaming about Washington State making a third trip to the NCAA tournament in four years? Probably. The odds are still long for such a young team.

Still, consider this: Seven Cougar teams have started 10-2 or better since 1979-80 (when WSU made its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1941), and only one of those teams failed to advance to the Big Dance or the NIT.

Does Nike make dancin' shoes?

AS FOR TUESDAY NIGHT'S stirring overtime win over LSU, the Cougars nursed small leads most of the way, but Casto had to score the final basket of regulation with 6 seconds left to force overtime, and the Cougars gave up the first basket in overtime. Despite 50 fouls and 67 free throws, the crowd loved the high energy and athleticism on both sides. "Just a ton of fun getting a win for these fans," Thompson said.

Thompson, who led all scorers with 26 points on 7-of-18 accuracy from the field, made the 100th and 101st 3-pointers of his career, ranking him 16th in the WSU career record books.

The Cougars remain undefeated in the Cougar Hardwood Classic, the annual KeyArena "home" game played since 2005. The game doesn't count as an official home game -- try telling that to LSU -- but the crowd set an unofficial WSU home attendance record at the former home of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics. "It felt like a Sonics game," said WSU point guard Reggie Moore, a Seattle native. In addition, the crowd ranked as the largest ever in the state of Washington to watch a Washington-based college team.


  • Washington State opens Pac-10 play with afternoon games next week on Thursday versus Oregon and on Saturday versus Oregon State. The Oregon game will be televised only in Oregon, but Fox Sports Northwest carries the OSU contest. Most WSU students will be out of town due to the Christmas break, so it will be interesting to see how the Cougars can draw. Some fans no doubt will celebrate New Year's Eve with a trip to Pullman for the Pac-10 opener with Oregon.

  • As impressive as the 10-2 start may be, it should be remembered that WSU started 11-1 in 2006-07 and 14-0 in 2007-08. Both those teams played in the NCAA tourney. Last year, the Cougars started 8-4, finished 17-16 and lost in the first round of the NIT.

  • Chad Ford of ranks Thompson, a sophomore wing, the 34th-best prospect for the 2010 NBA draft. Ford predicts Thompson, the son of former NBA No. 1 overall draft pick Mychal Thompson, will go late in the first round or early in the second round. Asked if he might turn pro after this season, Thompson said, "I'm not sure."

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