When Lorenzo Romar and the University of Washington pulled out of the Gonzaga-UW series, Gonzaga fans were shocked. At that time, UW was a very solid program and everyone thought that Washington and Gonzaga were the class of the state. In recent years, the Cougars of Washington State have blossomed into an outstanding program under the guidance of Tony Bennett. Gonzaga and Washington State has become a game in which the whole state stops to watch because it features the two best teams in the state. Washington has stumbled under poor coaching and player development in the past couple years but could be poised for a comeback this season. For Tony Bennett, this is a defining year. He has lost many of his star players from a season ago and will be relying on 7, count 'em, 7 new freshman faces. These freshmen hold the future of Washington State basketball in palm of their hands. The Cougars return only 2 starters so the freshmen will have to make an instant impact. Will Washington State continue to be at the forefront of basketball in the Northwest? This year should be huge in answering that question.
Last Season's Results: The Cougars played outstanding basketball last season. They were constantly overlooked and flew under the radar the entire season. In total, Tony Bennett's squad went 26-9 on the season including an 11-7 record in the very difficult PAC-10. They finished 3rd in the PAC-10 regular season and lost to Stanford in the conference tournament. The Cougs garnered an NCAA Tournament bid and were faced with one of the toughest roads to the championship. They opened up the tournament in Denver against Winthrop, a team known for its ability to create the upset. Winthrop never stood a chance as they were dominated by WSU's suffocating defense and the Cougs won 71-40. They next had to face Notre Dame, a game that I saw personally, and it was also never even a contest. WSU and more specifically Aaron Baynes (left) shut down Irish star Luke Harangody and beat the Irish by 20 points. In the Sweet Sixteen, the tables were turned on Washington State and they were the one's who were dominated. They ran into a freight train in tournament favorite North Carolina. They lost 68-47 to Tyler Hansbrough and the Tarheels and just like that, the collegiate careers of Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, and Kyle Weaver were over. Low and Weaver starred for the Cougs. They averaged 14 and 12 points per game, respectively. Robbie Cowgill, the man who single handily dominated Gonzaga, also graduated.
New Faces: As I mentioned before, this is a pivotal year for Washington State. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver carried this team for many years and they will not be easy to replace. Tony Bennett did one heck of a job recruiting in 2008 and he was able to secure six recruits and also a talented walk on. Klay Thompson headlines the class of 2008. Thompson, a 6'5'' shooting guard, is a four star recruit from California. Joining Thompson is Marcus Capers, DeAngelo Casto, Michael Harthun, James Watson, Nick Witherill, and walk on John Allen. They recruited mainly guards and a couple power forwards due to the loss of Cowgill, Weaver, and Low. The production at the guard spot will be extremely difficult to make up for. DeAngelo Casto is a name that Gonzaga fans should be familiar with. The star power forward hails from Spokane and was thought to be a serious recruit for Gonzaga. Out of every freshman on the team, people seem to be buzzing most about Casto. He is a freak athlete who plays with a major mean streak. It took him a couple tries to qualify for WSU but he did get in and I would look for him to make a major impact in the coming years. The Cougars are counting on production from two players that did not see the court last year but were attending the University. Abe Lodwick and Fabian Boeke sat out last season but will be in this year's rotation. Lodwick is a redshirt freshman who had the responsibility of guarding Kyle Weaver every day in practice last season. He is not as athletic but should be a solid contributor. Boeke is a German transfer who had to sit out last season because of eligibility rules. He is a 6'11, 22 year old sophomore who should give Aron Baynes a nice backup. Don't expect any true freshmen to be in the starting lineup however. Bennett will rely on his veterans to carry this team as he always has. Lodwick should be the youngest player to start but aside from that it should be a junior and senior dominated starting five.
Players to Watch: Two starters return for the Cougs and they will be relied on heavily. Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie will take over this team for Tony Bennett. Gonzaga fans know Aron Baynes very well. The Zags actually offered Baynes back in the day but Tony Bennett has a great connection with players from Australia and Baynes decided to play basketball in Pullman. Baynes, a 6'10'' center, scored ten points a game last season and also pulled down six rebounds. He is a massive man weighing 275 lbs and is nearly impossible to back down in the post. Baynes struggled with consistency last season; he started off the season hot and played very well against Gonzaga but his struggles in the second half of the season carried into the tournament and really hurt the Cougs down the stretch. Taylor Rochestie was also one of the best players for WSU last season. His most notable contribution may have come this offseason when the red shirt senior gave up his scholarship to allow the Cougars to sign another player in 2008. This selfless act allowed freshmen Marcus Capers to join the team. Rochestie was put back on scholarship this season but it is quite the story. Rochestie is not half bad on the court as well. He had 10 points a game last season and also added five assists. Rochestie is a very gutty and surprisingly athletic guard. He doesn't wow you with his overall size but he is one of those guys that you love to have on your team. Baynes and Rochestie are definitely the guys to watch for the 2008-09 Washington State Cougars but don't be surprised if some freshmen pop there in head in there as well.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: Looking at this game on paper and you have to think Gonzaga wins. This game can't be judged on paper however. This is the biggest rivalry game left for Gonzaga. Saint Mary's and San Diego are budding rivals but beating the Cougs means we are the best team in the state (Sorry, UW, you backed out). The fact that this game is in Pullman is also quite scary. The Zags should be able to overwhelm the inexperienced Cougars but I don't think it will be a huge blowout. Tony Bennett will keep running the same suffocating defense he always has and more than likely, the Zags will be frustrated. It's been two years since Gonzaga has beaten Wazzu. This game should end that streak.
What We are Watching for: Washington State basketball is often called boring and monotonous. It is called this because of its slow, half court pace and low scoring. Gonzaga fell victim to this last season when they were defeated by the Cougars in Spokane. Last year's Zags only scored 47 points last game. This team should be able to score that in a half against some opponents. I don't imagine any chance Gonzaga loses this game but it is crucial that we do not become frustrated by WSU. If Tony Bennett is able to enforce his will on Mark Few and slow the game down, it will be frustrating forty minute. If the Zags are able to run and gun the way they know how, we could be looking at a blowout. There is no way this year's Cougars can outscore Gonzaga if it is a shootout. This is why the pace of the game is TKR's what to watch for. Be sure to watch the play of Aron Baynes. He has played well in this rivalry game during his time at Wazzu and it will be interesting to see how Josh Heytvelt deals with the strong Australian. This will be a test for Josh because he is primarily a face up type player and Baynes is all about backing the opponent down. The guard play should be heavily favored in Gonzaga's direction with the only threat coming from Rochestie but the interior play could be interesting.