Wazzu looks to Diamond Head and beyond

Washington State begins play in the Diamond Head Classic today knowing that things are going swimmingly.

The one-loss Cougars are looking like contenders in the Pac-10 again and receiving votes in the polls. Klay Thompson is back to his old sharpshooting self, and there's plenty of talent surrounding him. The team even catches a break in the opening game of the tournament with Mississippi State big man Renardo Sidney out due to a suspension.

The Cougars could end up playing in some big showcase games this week against Baylor and perhaps Butler, but really, it's merely an opportunity to get good exposure, according to coach Ken Bone.

The Hawaiian business trip is nice to be sure. What the Cougars are looking forward to more, perhaps, are the Pac-10 battles that lie ahead. After all, they remember what happened last season when a 10-2 nonconference start went for naught following a subsequent last-place Pac-10 finish.

"We haven't forgotten last year, put it that way," said Bone, the team's second-year coach.

Bone feels it's clear that rival Washington is the favorite in the Pac-10 this season, with Arizona right behind the Huskies.

"After that, I feel like it's pretty much up for grabs," he said. "The team that can stay together and stay healthy has a chance to be in that top tier."

Is Washington State a top-tier team? The Cougars will soon have a chance to prove it when they finish their two-week road trip by opening Pac-10 play against the Los Angeles schools, starting with UCLA a week from today.

Thompson is one of the conference's top players and a guard who in the past two months has turned himself back into a scoring machine, averaging 21 points per game. He's able to score in a variety of ways after adding muscle and is playing better defense as well, getting away from some of the bad body language that defined his sophomore struggles.

While backcourt mate Reggie Moore recovered from a wrist injury that cost him the first five games of the season, another scoring option emerged. Faisal Aden is averaging 16.9 points per game and can be relied upon to start as he did Sunday in place of Moore or come off the bench to provide instant offense.

Aden has been a pleasant surprise for Bone, who was at first unsure how to handle the junior college transfer's aggressiveness.

"We were on him about his shots even though they would go in, but they kept going in," Bone said. "We’re living with some of his shot selection because the ball goes in the basket."

With Moore back in the flow scoring a season-high 15 points in Sunday's overtime win against Santa Clara, DeAngelo Casto providing his usual physical presence and Marcus Capers a starting-lineup mainstay with 29 assists against only five turnovers, the Cougars have meshed well.

The Diamond Head Classic should give them some good competition to measure themselves against, and continued improvement would be the biggest takeaway from a solid showing. Soon enough, Pac-10 play will offer the opportunity to completely wash away last season's last-place memories.

"We reflect on it sometimes," Thompson said, "but it's a new year."