Nuss told me after the Washington game that it was going to be hard to write anything positive about the team right now.
But now, I'm taking it on as a challenge. And there are a number of reasons why things might not be as bad as they seem.
Taylor Rochestie is still the same Taylor Rochestie that was preparing to give up his scholarship this season for someone else. It was only because we didn't add another freshman (we already had nine redshirt or true freshmen), that Taylor got to keep his ride for 2008-09.
Also, we still play Bennett ball. The Cougars specialize in unselfish play. And while that isn't translating to all the wins we want now, remember that it wasn't winning when Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver started out. Part of enjoying this team is enjoying the style of play. Some think it's ugly, we think it's beautiful. The defense is still excellent - I don't think anyone can deny the job done by Baynes and Casto in the low post against Jon Brockman on Saturday. I'll take face-up jump shots from Brockman as his only form of offense any day of the week. Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto have molded themselves into quality defenders already, and they're only freshmen. The Cougars still thrive on team play and out-hustling the other guys.
It may seem a little out of place to mention character in the wake of Forrestgate. In reality, though, this whole debacle actually proves how much this team values doing the right thing. Don't believe me? Ask Lorenzo Romar:
"Caleb Forrest is a good kid,'' Romar said. "He was not pleased (with his involvement in the incident). But it's not only what you do but how you respond from it, and he has been very apologetic. That is not in his character in any way, and then he was immediately apologetic. When someone handles a situation like that, it's not what they normally do, it's not been a pattern, he shows remorse, then let's move on. That's how I see it. And I think Darnell Gant feels the same way.''
Or ask Darnell Gant, who was on the receving end of Forrest's swinging arm:
"It's just basketball," Gant said. "It's competitive. It's really no big deal."
Gant said Forrest apologized after the game and that "I don't hold grudges so I'm not upset or anything. That's just basketball."
Gant doesn't think it was a big deal. And both he and Romar are clearly accepting of Forrest's apology.
I know what you're thinking, though. What does Husky men's basketball blog commenter coreyjay think about all this?
Ten of the fifteen players on the roster hadn't played a collegiate game coming in to the season. Seven are true freshmen, two are redshirt freshmen, and one is a sophomore who sat out last season. We touched on this at the beginning of the year, but it's worth noting again as we've ran into trouble with depth.
Granted, these freshmen are part of the best recruiting class in at least a decade. But just look at USC, or even the Spencer Hawes class at Washington, to see what great recruiting classes translate to in terms of wins. It's variable, and you need leadership at the top. We have four seniors, but only two have been prominent starters prior to this season: Rochestie and Baynes. Teams are making a living out of throwing everything at Baynes, and forcing Rochestie into being a shoot-first, pass-second guard. The exact opposite of what he should be. Caleb Forrest is not as polished at the same position as Robbie Cowgill. Daven Harmeling isn't the light-it-up three point shooter that Derrick Low was. So there are seniors, but there's not much depth among them.
I'm starting to get negative, though. Let's focus on just how good the freshmen are, and how much potential there is in this class. Klay Thompson is obvious - he may be the first player under Tony Bennett to go pro early. Of course he's still two to three years away from being NBA ready, but this is a huge find for a program that's struggled to send players to the NBA in the past. Then there's DeAngelo Casto: solid defender, skilled athlete, whose only downside has been the inability to finish some shots around the basket. He'll only get better. Marcus Capers is already light years ahead of where anyone projected him to be. Mike Harthun could be extremely useful as early as... well, right now, if he can work his way to more playing time. Witherill and Watson are projects, but will be fun to watch develop. Both could be significant players for us in the early 2010s - if not sooner. Watson is the kind of high-flying forward we need against teams like the Huskies (he dunks effortlessly), and Witherill may be able to contribute soon as a ballhandler at the 1 or the 2.
These freshmen are good - some may turn out better than expected, some may be worse. Regardless, this is a better group coming in than the one that just led us to a Sweet Sixteen.
I have to believe these Cougars are victims of some bad luck this year. Our two biggest home games - Gonzaga and Washington - resulted in two of the best games of the season for both our in-state rivals. It's strange to think the Cougs have the bulls-eye on their backs, but they've got it. And so far, teams are bringing their best effort against WSU. Sure, some of it was us, but a lot of it was them. The Huskies looked more inspired on defense than I've seen them in years last Saturday. The Zags couldn't miss a shot in the second half, and Baylor hit two ridiculous shots in the final two minutes. As for some of the lopsided scores, the fact remains that the Cougars have been in every game they've played. Not one opponent has put WSU away in the first half, and most of our losses have come against teams that, for whatever reason, pulled away in the final few minutes. The Cougs got down in those games, and in their attempt to come back, stayed down by giving up too many free throws or forcing the offense. The Huskies' 20-point win wasn't really a 20-point win, considering how the Cougars gift-wrapped trips to the line in the last three minutes.
Then there's the issue of luck off the court. The Cougs lost Chris Matthews and Mac Hopson to transfers two years ago - players that they could desperately use now. Those things weren't bad luck per se, but Stephen Sauls' injury was. And considering how good Sauls looked early on, it seemed that he could have been the guy to replace Mac Hopson, erasing all our worries about Mac's departure to Idaho. It wasn't to be. A freak concussion sidelined Sauls, and he transferred to Blinn College back home in Texas. Sauls was my pick for newcomer of the year last season. Now, it's in the hands of one of the true freshmen or Abe Lodwick to provide some depth at the guard position.
Will the Cougs ever turn the corner on luck? We'll get our first test of that today, when Cal comes to town. Cal shoots about 50% from three-point range, and are due to cool off. If some of their shots rim out, the way many of ours have this winter, we could be on the way to our first big win.
If not - it's gonna keep getting harder to find the positives.