Paul Graham enters his sophomore season as Washington State University's head basketball coach with just as much expectations as he had in his first season -- slim or none.
But that's good.
A 6-22 season (and that was after starting out 5-3) and a last-place Pac-10 finish last year was pockmarked by all sorts of turmoil from beginning to finish, but mostly at the beginning when center Brian Stewart was shooed away and starting senior point guard Blake Pengelly quit the team shortly before the Pac-10 season began. Later on, forward Bryan Whitehead was released from scholarship and Graham's son, Nick, was placed on scholarship. After that disastrous beginning, nobody is expecting the Cougs to rebound (pun intended) until 2002.
But that was last year and this is this year, and Graham may have lost even more. The Cougs top three leading scorers -- Chris Crosby, Jan-Michael Thomas and Mike Bush -- have been lost for the beginning of the season. Crosby and Thomas were seniors, and Bush was lost to injury but is expected to be back when Pac-10 play resumes. Normally, this would be the point where Graham might turn to the prize of his recruiting class, but Tommy Johnson was ineligible and that leaves Graham to ponder what might have been -- at least until Bush gets healthy.
Currently, Eddie Miller, David Adams and Milton Riley are the best players returning, but Riley looks to be a role player in Graham's offensive scheme and won't be getting much minutes -- which leaves Miller to be the inside presence and Adams to be the outside presence. Center J. Locklier -- a transfer from Miami (Ohio), forward Framecio Little and guard Marcus Moore are the best bets to round out the starting unit, which creates a bench depth concern for Graham if any starter gets into foul trouble. Guards Jerry McNair and Kendall Minor may contribute down the road.
The schedule is light for the Cougs, though, and once they are through dispensing the likes of Idaho, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Sacramento State, they might have given some valuable playing experience to the eight new players on the squad -- just in time for the brutal Pac-10 conference schedule. With the early creampuff schedule, the Cougs could achieve the magical double-digit victory plateau, but it would be expecting too much for them to crest the .500 wave this year.
Player development will be key for Graham's crew throughout the year and if Bush can return quickly enough to help them out -- just when everybody least expects it -- the Cougs may even move up a notch in the Pac-10 standings this year.
& & & lt;i & The Cougs host the Cougar Shootout at the Spokane Arena this weekend, with the University of Idaho, the University of Portland and the University of Toledo. The tournament starts Friday, Dec. 8, at 6 pm at the Spokane Arena, with the second game starting at 8 pm. On Saturday, the consolation game is at 6 pm with the championship game at 8 pm. Tickets: $7 for one day; $10 for both days. The Cougs will return to the Arena on Thursday, Jan. 11, to take on highly ranked Arizona at 8 pm. Tickets: $8-$14. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &