by Tony C. Duarte

As the Washington State Cougars enter the third year of their trial membership in the Pacific-10 Conference... hey, joking, just joking... c'mon now, where's your sense of humor?

If you've been a Cougar basketball fan or well-wisher for the past few years, there has been nothing to laugh about. After experiencing a fair amount of success under head coach George Raveling in the 1980s -- which included a couple of NCAA bids -- then another invitation to the Big Dance and the NIT under Kelvin Sampson in the early '90s and finally back-to-back trips to the NIT under Kevin Eastman from 1994-96, there's been a dancing drought for the past five seasons. The past four seasons have even been worse than the infamous Len Stevens Experiment after Raveling left in 1983 -- a four-year period under Stevens that saw the Cougs win only 48 games, most of them against cupcake competition.

The cupcake competition part hasn't changed -- the Cougs' 2001-02 home schedule features 325th-ranked Arkansas-Pine Bluff and 323rd-ranked Prairie View A & amp;M (What? 324th-ranked Savannah State was busy in December?) -- but the coaches and players have. Third-year head coach Paul Graham, a former assistant at Oklahoma State, replaced Eastman, and after a disastrous first year (6-22) and a few highly visible player defections in both the first and second years, he has established his system.

Last year, with Mike Bush leading the scoring parade at a 15.9 points-per-game clip, the Cougs weren't able to get to .500 but were able to get back into double digits in wins. Bush had played wide receiver in football in high school and wanted to try out for Mike Price and the Cougar football squad last year, but academic difficulties prevented it, so he focused on basketball instead. After the season, with his academics in order, Bush turned out for the football team, where he has become the Cougars' second-leading receiver and a budding star in the process.

Bush has indicated that he would like to play for the hoop team in December while the football team awaits their bowl bid, and even though he has started practicing with the team, he will still miss at least half the month with football preparations, no matter what bowl game the Cougs are in. The best-case scenario would have Bush missing only seven games -- Colorado State, Prairie View A & amp;M and Montana in November and the first four Pac-10 games against USC and UCLA in December and January. The worst-case scenario, assuming no injuries or other unforeseen circumstances are involved, would have him missing all of December and nearly half the season.

In Bush's absence, the primary scoring responsibilities will fall upon sophomore point guard Marcus Moore and junior shooting guard Jerry McNair. Last year, Moore was erratic but impressive in late-season games as he became the team's second-leading scorer (10.4 points per game) and leading assist man (3.6 per game) in being named to the Pac-10's all-freshman team. McNair (9.4 points per game) also came on late in the season and finished with a team-high 40 percent rate from beyond the three-point arc. In the off-season, Graham inked two more junior college shooting guards -- Cedric Huey from Westark Community College in Arkansas and Justin Lyman from Blinn College in Texas (although the 6-6, 205-pound Lyman, who was destined for Texas Christian before poor grades sidetracked him to junior college, may also play a wing position).

Up front, the main scoring punch is expected to come from the Cougs' lone returning center, John "J" Locklier, who averaged 9.5 points per game last year and was honored as the Pac-10's Newcomer of the Year, an award recognizing the best first-year players who are not true freshmen. Locklier was a transfer from Miami (Ohio) who wound up as the Cougars' leading rebounder. Because of the loss of one of last year's starters (Framecio Little, who was banished to academic Siberia), assisting Locklier down in the paint, will be 6-9 Milton Riley. What Riley lacks in girth (checking in at about 200 pounds -- with his shoes on), he makes up for in emotion and a 51 percent shooting percentage from the field. That can also make him a motivator for the Cougs in crucial situations. The Cougs also have 6-11 junior college transfer Pawel Stasiak, but he is a project whose best year may be next year, and Shaminder Gill, a true freshman from Canada who will also need a year or two of experience before putting up any big numbers.

The Cougs' schedule is the most interesting aspect of the season. After wading through the pastry at the beginning, the Cougs begin to hit the red meat with Texas and Gonzaga in the same week in mid-December, shortly before embarking on the opening four-game binge with the Los Angeles Pac-10 schools. The game with Gonzaga will be played in the Kennel, where the Cougars will be making their much-anticipated return to Gonzaga's campus for the first time since 1977.

"It'll be nice to get a Pac-10 team to come play in the Kennel," says the Bulldogs' point guard Dan Dickau, a University of Washington transfer.

After that, the Cougs enter the brutality that is the Pac-10 schedule, which, because of the re-institution of the conference's post-season tourney beginning this year, will start in late December and end in late February instead of the usual early March finish. That means the last week of the old schedule was shifted to the first week of the new schedule, creating the L.A. school logjam in December. It also means that seven of the Cougs' first eight Pac-10 games will be against foes that were in the Big Dance last year and are expected to be there again this year. If they can survive that stretch of bad road -- and four of those games really are on the road -- with a .500 mark, then they might even allow themselves to dream about post-season play.

Going into the third year of his original contract, and rapidly approaching the "money" year -- the fifth -- Paul Graham has the program making some baby steps of progress after last year's 12 wins, but more will be expected to get them past the Len Stevens Experimental Stage. All cupcakes aside, this could be a defining year for Paul Graham and the Cougar basketball program.

Northwest Winterfest @ Mirabeau Park Hotel

Through Jan. 2, 2021
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