Let’s start with tradition.
There’s not a lot. WSU’s last league title was in 1941. George Raveling’s 1983 squad came within one basket of the crown, but no other team in the last 72 years has been nearly that close. Over those same 72 years, only six Cougar basketball teams have advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
By comparison, Washington has had that many just since 2004. Cal and Stanford have each had six invitations since 2002, USC six since 2001, and Oregon six since 1995. Even Arizona State has been to the Dance six times since it joined the conference in the 1978-79 season. And Oregon State, while mostly irrelevant for the last 20 years, managed seven Big Dance bids just in the decade of the ‘80s. No need to even look at the monster records of Arizona and UCLA.
Want more evidence of the chronic mediocrity? WSU is 47-215 all-time against ranked opponents.
The point is this: Basketball success has been an elusive creature on the Palouse since before World War II.
Marv Harshman, George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett each had their highly memorable successes, but those periods were the exception, not the rule. And every single one of them (Tony as an assistant with his dad) had positively wretched seasons before they experienced success.
Because of the seven-decade-long body of evidence, it’s fair to say WSU’s lack of success supersedes coaches, athletic directors and presidents.
Which takes us to the lifeblood of college sports -- recruiting.
This sounds simplistic, but sometimes the most obvious facts are worth repeating: WSU has had limited basketball success over the years because it has not attracted enough athletes who could compete at the highest levels. There is no clearer testament to that fact than this one: In the history of the NBA, only five Cougars have had meaningful careers there. In the span between Craig Ehlo’s retirement in 1997 and Klay Thompson’s ascension in 2011, WSU grads played a grand total of 164 NBA games. That’s not even the equivalent of two full regular seasons. By comparison, Washington has seven players in the NBA at this very moment.
Here’s another fact in regard to talent. Over the last 15 years, you can count on one hand the number of Washington State basketball players who held scholarship offers from other Pac-10/12 schools. Typically, it’s the Pepperdines and Santa Claras that WSU is competing with for talent. Xavier Thames, a guy Coug fans love to lament for getting away, had no other Pac-10 offers coming out of high school. Neither did Klay Thompson. He had Michigan and Notre Dame, but none from the Pac-10 besides WSU.
Facts like these spread over the course of time clearly transcend any one coach, athletic director or president. They point to a broader issue.
And that issue, at its core, is geography.
No matter how you slice it, Pullman’s location poses serious challenges to the basketball program -- far more than it does to football, because hoops in this country is such an urban-focused sport. Look at Seattle. It is one of the nation’s youth basketball meccas, which means Lorenzo Romar can turn around at any home game on any night of the week to spot outstanding prepsters in the stands. Going to a Husky game is like walking across the street for these prospects. It’s quick and easy. They can take in five or ten games a year, all on their own without the UW staff even knowing it.
That simply isn’t possible in Pullman. It’s far from the urban centers where most of the talent is located, and the sport is played in a season where snow on the roads is always a possibility.
If a kid gets to Pullman for a visit, the college town and family atmosphere can work magic. But getting kids to trip to the Palouse can be a tough sell that transcends who the coach is or isn’t at any given time.
It’s a tough sell because WSU has no consistent tradition of excellence (six Big Dance bids in 72 years) and as paltry a record in the NBA as any major school in the nation.
In this era of multiple ESPN channels, YouTube, Twitter, Nike vs. UnderArmor vs. Adidas, et.al, that is critical, critical stuff with 16- and 17-year-old kids.
SO HOW DO YOU BREAK THAT logjam?
You break it in two ways. One is top-flight facilities, and the other is through good old fashioned player development.
Let’s talk player development first.
Nowadays, the best basketball talent is heading to the NBA early. That creates an advantage for junior and senior-laden teams, whose maturity and experience can help offset their talent shortcoming with higher octane young teams. That was the recipe Dick and Tony Bennett brought to Pullman and one Ken Bone has worked to continue.
This is a lot easier said than done, by the way. For all the glory that Weaver, Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, Daven Harmeling and the rest of the gang delivered, Tony’s 2006, ’07 and ’08 recruiting classes, the ones to carry on the success, were woefully deficient.
And that, in turn, brings us to facilities.
Outside of due diligence and hustle by coaches, facilities are the surest guard there is against clunker recruiting classes.
While there have been some notable improvements on that front in Cougar hoops in recent years, much more needs to be done to compete in the arms race, and that’s something every fan can influence through donations.
The locker rooms at WSU aren’t even as nice as the new ones for the women’s team at Boise State. The Galen Center, where the Cougars played last week, is to USC basketball what the football operations building at Martin Stadium will be to Cougar football. And as attractive as Galen is, it’s a tad back of the basketball operations building Tony Bennett walked into at Virginia.
Beasley has been spruced up, the practice courts in Bohler are quite nice, and the weight room is outstanding. So it’s not like WSU is the Pac-12’s version of St. Mary’s. But collectively, that package is not where the sport is heading. The Galen Center and UVa’s John Paul Jones Center are where it’s heading. State-of-the-art locker rooms and offices, a lounge, an academic support center, and dining room -- it’s all there, and all first class.
At WSU on Monday, if you happened to be driving down Colorado at the right time, you would have seen a dozen bundled up students walking from Beasley to Bohler. That was the Cougar basketball team going from practice to weight training. While I’m sure the fresh air was great, you’d have to think the Galen Center is more appealing.
Aside from lack of charter flights for recruiting and games, the disjointed nature of the set up at WSU was Dick Bennett’s biggest beef.
Most of WSU’s facilities energy right now is directed at football. And well it should be. If football gets righted, the benefits will accrue to every sport at the school.
But for hungry basketball fans who want to win right now, that’s little consolation.
What is encouraging, however, is where the basketball program is headed even with the hurdles the program faces.
The Cougs have just two wins in conference play this season and you like where the program is heading?
Looking at who all is returning to the team next season a year older, wiser and stronger, and then layering in some interesting new talent like Que Johnson, Ikenna Iroegbu and Jordan Railey, the 2013-14 Cougs hold intrigue. Moreover, Bone is moving the team in a stronger direction on defense, and the point guard situation should be better with Royce Woolridge’s experience, Iroegbu, and perhaps another pick up in the April signing period, which we’re hearing faint rumblings about.
That’s all encouraging.
And if you compare next year’s group to what Bone inherited from Bennett, there really is no doubt the program is in better shape now than it was then. Bennett left little rebounding experience and only one player (Thompson) who averaged more than 4 points per game. Next year’s Cougs return the top rebounder (D.J. Shelton) and four players now averaging between 5.4 and 10.6 points per game.
I wouldn’t be clearing shelf space anytime soon for a Pac-12 championship trophy, but given the structural realities of the program, that’s a platform from which to build, not tear down.