HARMELING: Addition by subtraction

WITH THE BUZZ of NBA free agency filling headlines, it got me thinking. Thinking about players changing teams, the magnitude of each decision, and how it affects the team left behind. The Cougs, as you know, have experienced some change this off season. And I will tell you that while there's disappointment in seeing guys leave, the fact is that WSU basketball is going to be stronger because of it.

The transfers of Michael Harthun to Portland State, Xavier Thames to San Diego State, Anthony Brown to Eastern Oregon, and James Watson to the JC ranks due to academics, have been well documented. A number of Coug fans have expressed concern about it all.

My response is this: These transfers are just part of the college basketball process and, ultimately, healthy for the program.

Sure, I felt a level of disappointment when I found out this guys were leaving. But the source of my disappointment was a bit different than some Cougar fans who seemed to read more into it than there really is.

I will certainly miss the contributions that Thames -- the most promising player among those leaving -- would have made. But what really has me disappointed is that X didn't want to stick around and sell-out to being a Coug. I wanted him to push Reggie Moore for the starting point guard spot, and find motivation in thinking about how sweet it would be to help take the Cougs from 10th place to somewhere in the top of the Pac-10 (12 Pac?).

I was particularly surprised by his departure because X struck me as being a steely-eyed competitor. From the first day of pick-up games last summer, I saw him defending tenaciously, competing, and fighting to help his team hold court. I can understand wanting to be the starting point guard, but the scrap I saw in X made me think he would have done everything in his power to dethrone Reggie from his starting spot. Instead, he chose to transfer.

Understand, I like X a lot. He's a great kid and I think he's gonna be a great player. But the Cougs are better off without him. I say that because it's far better filling that scholarship slot with someone who truly wants to be a Coug. Commitment to a cause pays far bigger dividends in the long run than does just ability on the court.

When you're building a program, you can only take the ship where it needs to go if you have every guy on the roster 100 percent invested in the destination. When things get tough, the boat starts to rock, the winds pick up, uncertainty kicks in. I want to see who's staying on the ship and who's jumping to sea. I do know this: if someone wants to jump, you let them. You can't force someone to want to be a part of something their heart isn't invested in.

Now, to help illustrate my point, I want you to consider this scenario ...

Team Y finishes last place in its conference. They then unexpectedly lose a guy who is their leading scorer, best ball handler, most accurate 3-point shooter, and one of the most-well-liked people in the locker room. He decides to transfer. Let's call him Player One. On the surface, you would expect that team to become even worse following his departure, right? But somehow, that team manages to weather the storm. In fact, not only does the team weather the storm, but it finishes the next season No. 2 in the conference and advances to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Ridiculous, right?

Nope.

You guessed it: Team Y was our very own Cougars. "Player One" was Josh Akognon, who left WSU following our last place season of 2005-06. And that next season, 2006-07, we were making national headlines. Now we obviously had several factors that helped us climb that ladder, but at the end of day we lost our best offensive player at the time. Josh is a great guy -- unbelievably likeable and a good friend of mine. But he didn't stay on the boat. And no one dived in to keep him on board. Josh would go on to be one of the top scorers in the nation at Cal State Fullerton, averaging 24 points per game, so everything worked out well for all concerned.

Different players have different reasons to transfer, and I'm not here to elaborate on why Thames and the rest transferred from WSU this spring. And I'm not promising that next year's team will make the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But I can guarantee that for this program to get to where the players and coaches want to be, they need everyone on board.

Granted, the departure of Harthun, Watson, and Brown likely aren't as significant in terms of ability as X's was, but every great team needs players that are willing to do some behind-the-scenes work and be okay with not being in the spotlight.

Caleb Forrest was a great example. He could have easily transferred elsewhere early in his career understanding that Ivory Clark, Robbie Cowgill, and I were ahead of him in the rotation. At best, he would have to wait until his senior year to have a crack at starting and seeing consistent minutes. But he withstood the storm, embraced the opportunity, crashed every single offensive board in practice for four straight years, left countless layers of skin on the floor, and ultimately became a vital part of our program. And he ended up getting that starting nod and becoming a true fan favorite.

It's like Dick Bennett always said: In order to rebuild a program, you've got to find guys you can lose with before you can win.

The boat's rocking. The wind is roaring. Let's see who's left on the ship. They're the ones who will get this thing where it needs to be.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daven Harmeling was a mainstay on the Washington State basketball team – and a fixture on the Pac-10 All-Academic team – during the most successful three-year stretch in Cougar history. Part of Dick Bennett's stellar recruiting class of 2004, this Grand Junction, Colo., product completed his eligibility in 2009 and now is in Vancouver, Wash., running clinics for Dan Dickau Basketball, coaching high school ball, and working as a substitute teacher. He writes a regular column for Cougfan.com during the hoops season.

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