First, let it be said that Ken Bone, the Washington State basketball coach, is a man of integrity, somebody who always represents his institution well.
But as the season winds down at WSU, this is also inescapable: The team he coaches is talent-shy and in danger of a third last-place finish in the Pac-12 in his five years.
The Cougars’ game at Oregon on Sunday night was a bit of microcosm in a 9-18 season. A big underdog, the Cougars played with passion through the first half, slowing the pace, frustrating the Ducks and taking a seven-point lead. Announcers on the Pac-12 Networks mentioned how cohesive and purposeful they looked.
And on the inbounds play to start the second half, they turned it over, gave up a transition basket in the first three seconds and eventually lost by 14, shooting 32.6 percent and committing 17 turnovers.
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It’s what they do. So Bone’s future at WSU is hanging by a thread, even as he has two years left on a seven-year deal that would pay him $1.7 million if he is fired.
Entering a Friday night game at Washington, Bone is 28-59 in conference games at WSU. If there’s anything his athletic director, Bill Moos, hates as much as not winning, it’s a lack of buzz, and there’s zero for Cougars men’s basketball.
WSU is averaging 2,825 fans a game, a figure no doubt made worse by the Pac-12’s all-over-the-map schedule. Still, that’s a drop of 61.4 percent from Bone’s first year, when the Cougars averaged 7,323 immediately after Tony Bennett’s golden run of two NCAA-tournament trips and one to the NIT.
In an extended talk Saturday with Bone, I asked him if he’d ever experienced a professional crisis. Until now, he hasn’t.
“That’s why I’ve enjoyed (his career) immensely,” he said. “And I’m enjoying this season — the group of guys we’re working with. It’s hard to lose, and everything that comes along with losing, but I know deep down, I’m comfortable. I’ve got a peace of mind about the situation.
“I know we’ve not taken short cuts. We’ve done it the right way, we’ve embraced the kids, we haven’t turned our back on them or blamed them. I just feel we’re doing it the right way and hopefully things will work out.”
In April 2009, when Bennett left abruptly for Virginia, I was one who lobbied for Bone’s hire. He was a rank-and-file coach with deep Seattle roots who had a history of success at Seattle Pacific and Portland State, sandwiched around time with Lorenzo Romar at Washington.
The Cougars chose him over Stew Morrill, the veteran Utah State coach, partly because they saw Bone as more contemporary. I believed Bone, now 55, would succeed with his deep connections on the west side of the Cascades if (something like Morrill) he could project and evaluate players for his system and preserve the Bennett legacy of making Pullman a place no visiting team wanted to come.
Just a sense here, but from the start, Bone appeared to tilt his staff hires more toward coaches than recruiters. His predecessor has been dinged in some quarters for spotty recruiting aside from the early Kyle Weaver-Derrick Low breakthrough class for his father Dick, but Tony Bennett had signed Brock Motum and Xavier Thames before he departed (Bone had to “re-recruit“ them to keep them on board). I’d submit those two constitute a better class than anything Bone has assembled.
You know the history: In short order, Bone signed Rainier Beach’s Reggie Moore, like Thames a point guard. Bone has said Moore proceeded to beat out Thames, who then checked out competitively, according to Bone. Thames leaves, goes on to an all-star career at San Diego State, Moore has his moments over two seasons for WSU, gets busted for marijuana in 2011 and eventually is booted from the team before last season.
This year, JC transfer point guard Danny Lawhorn was going to get the keys to the car, but after he was suspended indefinitely, he left before the season. So for two years, WSU has essentially tried to function without a point guard. At times, it’s unwatchable.
Not that there has been much to pass to inside; recruiting “bigs“ has also been a bugaboo. Never mind guys who average 16 a game on the low block, WSU has had a struggle finding the sturdy or springy 6-foot-8 player who can defend and rebound.
Bone thought he had a candidate when he signed 6-10 Steven Bjornstad a few years ago, but Bjornstad showed up with knees that couldn’t take the pounding and hung it up.
Meanwhile, Bone hasn’t been lucky elsewhere with injuries. He lost senior scorer Faisal Aden to a torn ACL in January 2012, the game after he’d been named national player of the week (WSU was a modest 11-8 and 3-4 at the time), he saw Fresno State transfer Mike Ladd play in and out of injury and his best player this year, DaVonte Lacy, missed the first month of the Pac-12 season with a painful rib problem.
It was Bone’s vision to contest more talented teams with veteran players who developed and became the equal of the opponent by their third and fourth years in the program.
“I still feel strongly I understand the blueprint,” Bone says. “Doggone, it’s my fifth year and we haven’t been able to put it together. I firmly believe that’s what you need. We’ve had a hard time getting there because of certain situations. Obviously, that’s on me.”
So here’s where WSU is: Short of Pac-12-caliber players, the Cougars control tempo. With former star Klay Thompson, they averaged more than 70 points in Bone’s first two years. The number has dropped every season since, down now to 62.3, partly due to the Lacy injury. According to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics, the Cougars are 343rd of 351 Division I teams in possessions per game.
What an irony: From the last days of the slowpoke Dick Bennett regime in 2006, they’ve come full circle.
It’s true that WSU has flung itself headlong for Mike Leach and football facilities while basketball has mostly gone begging. Beasley Coliseum, now past 40, needs work. As far back as two decades ago, coach Kelvin Sampson, young and energetic then, mused more than once about a challenge still largely unsolved — how it was exhausting, always driving to commercial flights rather than chartering.
But if his time is petering out at WSU, it won’t be facilities that beat Ken Bone. His teams did.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com