The youthful Cougs appeared to hear the message loud and clear. They were running full tilt the rest of the way.
The Cougs (12-4, 2-2) take on Cal at 7 pm in Pullman on Thursday and then host Stanford on Saturday in a 2 pm tilt. Neither game will be televised. Cal, one of the pre-season favorites to win the Pac-10 crown, is 10-5 overall and 2-1 in conference play. Stanford is 8-7 and 2-1.
After practice, assistant coach Ben Johnson told CF.C that these young Cougars – there’s one senior and no juniors on the team -- still have a lot of learning to do.
“I think we’re a work in progress and I think these are kind of the dog days of January,” Johnson said. “For a lot of these guys it’s the first time they’ve been asked to go as hard as they can every day and every drill. Some guys are battling through it but others are fading a little bit. But just in general they’ve got to band together and keep working together. The frustration is when you do the drill and don’t see the carry over. That’s where we need to improve from the carryover from the drill to the game setting.”
Johnson, who specializes in work with the big men, cautioned his post players in practice. “No fouls on Thursday night -- we’re playing against men,” he preached. Indeed, while the Bears are perhaps best known for their speedy backcourt, they have a serious post presence. Theo Robertson (6-8, 230) is averaging 14.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game; Jamal Boykin (6-8, 240) is averaging 11.1 and 6.6; and Amoke Omondi (6-7, 225) is at 5.9 and 5.5. There's also 6-7, 275-pound JC transfer Markhur Sanders-Frison and 7-3 sophomore Max Zhang who combine for about 30 minutes of playing time per game at center.
During the scrimmage portion of WSU’s Tuesday’s practice, second-year freshman forward James Watson, who has seen more playing time of late, took an extended turn with the first string and showed some range when he knocked down an 18-foot jumper toward the end of practice. He also is showing improved footwork down low on defense, while also impressing on his screen-and-roll duties.
“We’re always trying to improve our depth and our play off the bench,” Johnson said. “I think James (Watson), Xavier Thames, Steven Bjornstad, Charlie Enquist, and Brock Motum are going to have a significant influence on the rest of our season. I think we need to keep sprinkling them in here and there and keep trying them out to improve our depth and James is a big part of that no question about it.”
Sophomore Cougar guard Michael Harthun threw a brief scare into the team in the middle of practice when he landed awkwardly on an ankle after attempting an 18 footer. The Oregon native stayed on the ground momentarily before walking off under his own power. He was sidelined briefly, but returned to practice and showed no signs of slowing down.
The trouncing that the Cougars absorbed at Arizona State on Sunday hasn’t dampened spirits, said Johnson. “Overall I think we’re OK. We’re in the thick of the Pac-10 race, we’re 2-2. I think our morale is fine. Obviously we have big work and a huge challenge with Cal and Stanford, but I think the players are aware of that and the good news is we’re coming home and playing in front of our home fans, our students, and we’re excited about that.”