Having lost Klay Thompson to the NBA, the WSU Cougars entered this season with one proven scorer: Faisal Aden. Then they found another one as Brock Motum turned into one of the Pac-12's most improved players.
After a rough start that included some poor shooting games and some injuries, Aden had just started to play well, with great efficiency, when he suffered a torn ACL against Arizona two weeks ago.
Now the Cougars are down to Motum, who ranks second in Pac-12 scoring at 17.2 PPG. He scored 26 in a 60-53 win over USC a week ago and added 25 in a 63-60 loss to UCLA.
He's half the Cougar offense, and when he gets shut down—as he did by UCLA's zone in the second half, scoring just six points—the Cougars get turned off (they failed to score for nine minutes in the second half vs. UCLA).
The Cougars find themselves in a very familiar position, and you have to wonder if Ken Bone can recruit well enough to put them back where they were four years ago: in the NCAA Tournament. The soonest it probably could happen is 2014, but 2015 seems more likely.
Circumstances always seem to conspire against WSU having more than two good players at once. They typically have two guys who carry the team, with a couple of young guys who aren’t there yet. Best case, that gets them into the NIT. And that's not good enough. Ever.
That's how it was in 2008-09, when Thompson and DeAngelo Casto were freshmen and seniors Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baynes carried the team to the NIT. It was especially unfortunate that Baynes and Casto played just one year together—they could have been quite a pair if they had gotten even one more year together.
It has been a rare case when the Cougars have had three or four good, experienced players at one time, but when they have, they have been a strong NCAA Tournament squad.
The last time that happened was in 2006-08, when Baynes and Rochestie were part of a team that was led by Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. When Low and Weaver were juniors and Baynes and Rochestie were sophomores in 2006-07, the Cougars advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament (they lost in double-overtime to Vanderbilt).
The next year, those four led them to the Sweet 16 (where they were blown out by North Carolina). As good as those teams were, they were still a scorer short.
They got that scorer in 2008-09, when Thompson arrived. But Low and Weaver were gone, and Thompson was too young to help the Cougs get to the tournament; they had to settle for the NIT in Tony Bennett's last year.
The Cougars had the talent to be an NCAA Tournament team last year, when Thompson, Casto and Aden were juniors and Motum and Reggie Moore were sophomores. (We're not including senior Marcus Capers in this discussion because he is a one-dimensional—i.e., defensive—role player who doesn't offer much.)
But that group underachieved greatly. If Thompson and Casto had returned for their senior seasons, the Cougars probably would be at or near the top of the Pac-12 this year.
But, they left and Aden got hurt, and now it's just Motum and the annoyingly inconsistent Moore, and you can see where the Cougars are—not even close to good enough.
Next year, Motum and Moore will be seniors, DaVonte Lacy and Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge (currently redshirting) will be sophomores and the Cougars will have flash scorer DeMarquise Johnson and big man Richard Peters in as freshmen.
That will put them in the same spot they were in during the 2008-09 season, when they were light on experience and ended up as an NIT team. That seems to be the best they can do in 2013—and that's if Lacy, Johnson, Woolridge and Peters can help Motum score.
Assuming Johnson is the same kind of scoring machine Thompson was and Peters can fairly replicate Casto's play inside, the Cougars figure to be a borderline NIT team next year and again in 2014, when Woolridge and Lacy will be juniors and Johnson and Peters will be sophomores.
By 2014, Bone will be in his fifth season, and he will need to be showing that he is putting together a viable program. His 2013-14 recruiting class will be key to that. He has a nice class coming in next year: Johnson, Peters and a pair of 6'7" guys with unknown potential in Brett Boese and Richard Longrus.
But the key to long-term success will be his 2013-14 freshmen. If he can find a good big man and a point guard for that class, Bone could be on to something. Of course, it probably won't come to fruition until 2014-15.
In 2014-15, those unknown recruits would be sophomores, Johnson and Peters would be juniors and Woolridge and Lacy would be seniors, and the Cougars ideally would be in the NCAA Tournament again.
If they aren't, it means Bone will have failed to establish his program. And they will have to start all over.