Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 10:31 PM
PULLMAN — Washington State begins its 2012-13 basketball season Saturday against Eastern Washington with a healthy dose of belief, hope and optimism — and a good deal of skepticism outside the program.
"We might not be ranked high," says guard Royce Woolridge, a transfer from Kansas. "But we're going to go out there and play as hard as we can every day."
The Cougars, of course, are not ranked at all. They were picked 10th in the conference by media covering the Pac-12 and are widely seen as a one-trick pony, with returning conference scoring leader Brock Motum and little else.
Whether those complementary parts emerge collectively around Motum and push the Cougars, say, to the midrange of the Pac-12 standings will determine a lot about the degree of public support for fourth-year coach Ken Bone, 57-46 at WSU.
Asked how long it might be before WSU can be a challenger for the NCAA tournament, Bone pointed to Colorado's unexpected run through the 2012 league tournament. "I don't want to say we can't this year, because you never know," he said. "I don't want to count us out. We need to stay healthy and play well."
Bone added that next season's team will add transfer center Jordan Railey, "who has a chance to be a really good post player," as well as DeMarquise "Que" Johnson, a wing player ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA after picking the Cougars over Gonzaga and Washington.
Johnson is enrolled but can't practice, and Bone says he's "doing an outstanding job academically."
This year, they will rely on Motum, a clever, versatile scorer who made a quantum leap to average 18 points last season and often left opposing defenses without an answer.
Bone's charge might be to ensure that WSU has options, because if there's a No. 1 assignment for opponents, it's to take away Motum.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he's kind of a marked man," says Bone, who would like to see Motum improve off the dribble and on defense. "I do like some of the parts we have with him."
The Cougars haven't really had a muscular inside force since Aron Baynes left in 2009 (although 6-foot-8 DeAngelo Casto was a worthy defender and shot-blocker), and that's likely to be the case again. D.J. Shelton (6-9) is their most imposing presence, and Bone says he'll actually see time on the perimeter offensively because he's a good shooter.
Help is also expected from junior-college import James Hunter, a 6-9, 250-pounder from Australia.
Aside from Motum, however, the firepower is on the perimeter, mostly in the form of sophomore DaVonte Lacy, Woolridge and senior Mike Ladd, a Rainier Beach graduate.
Lacy is a strapping guard who can shoot, while Ladd is a bit of a mystery to many fans because his junior-year effectiveness was curbed by a concussion and then a lingering thumb injury.
But Ladd averaged 10.3 points as a sophomore at Fresno State before transferring, and the Cougars need him to be somewhere in that vicinity again.
"He's a good defender and good rebounder," says Bone. "He did not shoot real well last year (.420), but he's proven he's a good shooter from the (three-point) arc. Yet he's athletic. He's a big-time athlete. There's a lot there."
Ladd was a captain even before he became eligible at WSU.
"I love his leadership," says Bone. "His effort is outstanding every day."
The Cougars were thinned earlier this fall when Ladd's longtime friend and high-school teammate, Reggie Moore, the Pac-12 assist leader last year, was booted from the team for a rules violation.
"Things happen; we've got to move forward," says Ladd, who says he likes the chemistry of the Cougars. "This is probably one of the best teams I've been on, family-wise. We're really a family, on and off the court."
Says Woolridge, who will share ball-handling assignments with Lacy and Ladd, "Reggie was a really good dude. We looked up to him and we'll miss him. But we've just got to work on getting ready for the season."
Athletic director Bill Moos said earlier this fall the Cougars are "at a point where we should be competing in the mid-to-upper tiers of the Pac-12." That figures to be a challenge for a program that has become used to them.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
WSU returns Brock Motum (12), the Pac-12's leading scorer.
ROSS D. FRANKLIN / AP
Ken Bone must find options besides Brock Motum.