Take a look at this roster.
I know, it's the 2003-04 Gonzaga Bulldogs. But look at the names. If you're even remotely familiar with Gonzaga basketball you know how stacked that roster was: Blake Stepp, Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, Cory Violette, Derek Raivio, Sean Mallon, Erroll Knight, etc.
Someday, we're going to look back at this year's roster and say the exact same thing about Washington State.
But here's the catch. That Gonzaga team (although they look like a national title contender) fell flat in the NCAA tournament; blown out in the second round by 10-seed Nevada (in Seattle, no less). Morrison, Raivio and Mallon were too young; Stepp was arguably the worst big-game performer in GU history, and Turiaf drew more phantom fouls than just about anyone I've ever seen, including Baynes. It was a top-heavy and bottom-heavy roster, in terms of the team's experience. Sound familiar?
If it does, it's because I think it's as close a mirror to this year's WSU team as you're going to find. Now, I'm not saying this team is going to the tournament. It's too early, and we haven't seen how this team performs against comparable talent. But the Cougars looked incredibly impressive in a 76-31 dismantling of Lewis-Clark State College, the lone exhibition game for this season.
First, let me credit the opponent: LCSC actually played Dick Bennett's Cougars tight a couple of years back. And they are a NAIA school. That means in addition to playing a "rivalry" game against the nearby Cougars, the game also counts in their win-loss column. So don't think they were underprepared or disinterested in facing WSU. They wanted this one.
And that's partly why it was so darn impressive. And the final score doesn't indicate what a thrashing this was. Freshmen players made up the majority of the lineup for about two-thirds of this game. The benches cleared, right down to Ryan Bailey, who may not even be on the opening day roster (more on that later).
I want to break this down player-by-player, because I was seeing a lot of the freshmen and redshirts for the first time, or at least the first time in a non-practice situation. Let's start at the top and work our way down.
Taylor Rochestie is Taylor Rochesite. He orchestrates the offense as well as any point guard in the nation. Many people expect Taylor to have to shoulder the scoring burden left behind from Weaver and Low. After tonight, I'm not too sure he does. All Taylor has to do is handle the ball, pass, and sink the occasional bucket. He is the best player on the floor at this point. That shouldn't surprise anyone.
Aron Baynes is still getting better, if you can believe it. The big Aussie has improved so much over the past four years it's ridiculous. He will be one of the best centers in the Pac-10 in terms of scoring. But he also looks better in rebounding and defense. He had a double-double tonight (10 points, 12 boards) despite limited playing time. He avoided cheap fouls and played smart. That's encouraging.
Klay Thompson is as advertised. He doesn't play like a freshman and is as close to Kyle Weaver offensively as anyone on this team. In fact, that was an emerging theme tonight. The freshmen, some of them, were playing like seasoned veterans. I'll note the following: Thompson, Capers, Casto, Lodwick and Enquist look more experienced out on the floor than Robbie, Derrick, Kyle and Daven did their freshmen year. I can't even begin to tell you how exciting that is.
One fault with Thompson, at least early on: he tends to be a little too confident in his shot to the point where he made some bad decisions in terms of shot selection tonight. One thing seems to be clear: we will need him to take, and make, some of those shots to help replace last year's scoring leaders. I don't think I'm out on a limb saying that he can break 30 in a game this year. He wants the ball and therefore will be vital to the team's success.
His big aid to the team is his versatility and feel for the game - he threw a beautiful assist to Baynes and has a good handle on the ball. I think he will be a starter when the season officially begins on Saturday. Speaking of that, here's how I think the rotation will pan out for this season:
G/F - 3 of the following 5: Thompson, Koprivica, Harmeling, Forrest, Casto
C - Baynes
Lodwick, Capers, Harthun, Enquist
Not ready for primetime players:
Watson, Witherill, Boeke (I'm still concerned about his health), Allen, Bailey
Daven Harmeling: Like Nuss said earlier, you know what you're getting from Harmeling. But he's a key to this season and here's why. Bennett started the game with this lineup: Rochestie, Koprivica, Thompson, Harmeling, Baynes. Yep - that means Daven at power forward. If he's going to spend some time in four-land, he will have to be able to defend bigger, more athletic guys while still finding ways to contribute on offense. His three-point shooting can be a huge help, but we may not need him as much as last year. I'll explain as we go on.
Nikola Koprivica: Not only does he finally look healthy, but he even drained a three. Welcome back, Nik. Not a lot of slashing to the basket tonight. He played a lot of minutes with the reserve teams, which I thought was interesting. His defense could help ease the loss of Kyle Weaver.
DeAngelo Casto: Ladies and Gentlemen, the pleasant surprise of the evening. I thought college teams were shy about Casto because his talent was raw and needed some refining for major conference play. Now I'm wondering what the heck teams were thinking when they passed on him. The reigning Washington 4A player of the year is surprisingly polished offensively and will draw instant comparisons to Ivory Clark on defense (and offense). He plays smart, too. Instead of going up to try to dunk on a poor LCSC player, he was often patient and opted for the lay-in or the bounce off the glass. At one point he caught his defender in the air and used the advantage to go right back up for an easy deuce.
Casto is a huge get for us because it means we aren't as thin as I thought at power forward. He looked college-ready in high school, and he is. His 18 points led the way for WSU tonight. Tony's first big recruit from Washington is a great addition for the Cougs.
Caleb Forrest: What can I say that hasn't already been said? He hit a trademark mid-range jumper and plays the role of Robbie Cowgill beautifully in this offense. He may have some of his playing time eaten away by Casto, but probably not too much. He's still fun to watch.
Marcus Capers is the answer to Nuss' poll question. The one about which player will spend the most time backing up Rochestie. At least in my opinion. Capers doesn't get rattled and handles the ball well. Passes well too. At 6'4" he looks like a forward, but plays like a guard. I really like that. It used to be a mid-major team could match up with WSU height-for-height. Not anymore. There's not a single player on this team listed below six feet. Twelve players are 6'3" or taller. Think about that for a second.
I think Klay Thompson may get a good look, occasionally, at point guard. But I like Capers at the moment and think he's a good fit for Taylor's #2.
Abe Lodwick is Chris Matthews. For those of you who don't know, that means he's a lights-out three point shooter who will likely spend more time on the bench than he should. I'm about ready to annoint myself president of the Abe Lodwick fan club. I was wondering if his textbook form would translate to the speed of a real game. It does: he wen't 3 for 3, including one from where the professionals shoot.
I don't know if he can do much else than shoot. I don't care. Abe Lodwick is awesome.
Mike Harthun: Of all the freshmen on the team, I think the most improvement from start to finish of the season will be had by Harthun. He's got tremendous potential, that's for sure. However, of all the big guns of this year's recruiting class, he looked the most nervous out on the floor and was occasionally out of sync with passing in the offense. Having said that, he has a quick release, sweet pull-up jump shot, and will be a star before he's done at WSU. If we had Carolina-type talent I'd redshirt him, but we don't, and we need him. I'm really looking forward to watching this kid play.
Charlie Enquist: And now I know why the coaches are so high on this kid. The redshirt freshman plays like a younger Caleb Forrest, and looks extremely comfortable out on the floor. He still shows some strange posture from time to time, but makes up for it by playing like an upperclassman reserve. One to watch for in the future; he may yet earn that scholarship.
James Watson: He's raw, but he's fun and arguably the most athletic freshman on the team. My feeling is he could use a redshirt. If he polishes up his game, watch out. Possibly the best dunker on the team, but we can't know that if you don't hold a slam dunk contest. Right, Tony???
Regardless, he gets the award for tremendous upside potential. He may not be a contributor this year, but I have no problem with that.
Nick WItherill: Another player who should be redshirted because he will play out of his mind by the time he's a fifth-year senior. He could probably start for Oregon State. For now, he should take the time to develop into the player that I saw glimpses of tonight: a smart, skilled guard with the ability to see lanes and make shots. Like the other freshmen, he doesn't back down from the competition. He's great insurance if (KNOCK ON WOOD) we have a couple injuries at the guard position.
Fabian Boeke/John Allen: Neither played, presumably due to injuries. I'm legitimately worried about Boeke - he could turn out to be the next Chris Henry or Rodney Edgerson, sidelined by back injuries. And back injuries are notoriously tough to come back from. I really, really hope he can do it. Allen falls more under the realm of Nuss' expertise, but I think he'll be a good reserve who should be redshirted for the time being.
Ryan Bailey: Suited up tonight, although I think he could be replaced on the opening-day roster by John Allen. The crowd would have gone nuts if he had scored, but he didn't. Such is the life of Ryan Bailey.
And now, after all that, a statement so bold that I have to make it in bold typefont: This team is deeper than last year's squad. Yep. We've added two great three-point threats, Thompson and Lodwick. We have shot blockers in Forrest, Baynes, Casto, and Watson, to the point where a couple of shots were blocked by two Cougar defenders at the same time. The freshmen are young, and that showed a couple times tonight. But not as much as I thought it would. Some of the reserve-type freshmen showed their age in moments. The ones that will contribute rarely did. This roster, top to bottom, looks stronger than last year's. Not necessarily a better team, not necessarily a more successful one, but deeper. There's all sorts of promise as you head from 1 to 15.
And the team defense: exceptional. WSU opened on a 30-4 run. They allowed 15 in the first, and 16 in the second. Sure, some of it was LCSC, but these Cougars were executing like seasoned vets on both ends of the floor. They shot the lights out, they ran plays to perfection, they held on to the ball. The real test is whether or not they can do those things against Oregon, or Baylor, or Gonzaga.
It is too early to get excited, but this team looks good. And they'll only get better.