Dec. 2, 1999
PULLMAN, Wash. - New challenges bring new horizons, and the Cougars' senior staring guard Jan-Michael Thomas, he is convinced a new horizon will bring a winning tradition back to Cougar basketball and Friel Court.
It was only a year ago when the winding road of Thomas' life oddly ended up in Pullman, Wash. As a kid he grew up in the shadows of the Great Western Forum and learned the game of basketball on the streets rather than in a gym. His career then traveled north to San Joaquin Delta College where he averaged 20.5 points a game, and then continued on its northbound trail stopping at Washington State University.
With a career stricken in success and winning, Thomas had to deal with losing on the hardwood for the first time. The Cougar basketball program suffered its third consecutive loosing season in 1999 with a 10-19 record, managing only four Pac-10 wins. In a year in which they could only string together consecutive wins on two occasions, Cougar faithful were left wondering if the intensity would ever return to Cougar basketball.
"Last year we just weren't a complete ball club," said Thomas. "It wasn't that we were outmatched, it was just that we couldn't compete at the same level mentally as our opponents."
A bright spot from the '99 season was the sparkling play of Thomas. In his first year at the Division-I level, the 6-0 guard from Inglewood, Calif., dazzled opponents and fans with his deadly aim from behind the three-point arc. He led the Cougars in scoring with 14.1 ppg and connected on a WSU record 89 three-point baskets.
"Last year was a good coming-out party for me, but there was a lot of things I could have done better," Thomas said. "I wasn't physically ready for the level of Pac-10 play last year and as the season went by my body just couldn't hold up."
Despite the wear and tear his body endured, Thomas was selected to the Pac-10 All-Newcomer team and was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week in December.
Still, in the midst of the Cougars' downward spiral towards the 10-19 record, it was Thomas who provided flashes of brilliance. He had a career-best 34-point effort against nationally ranked Arizona in which he set a McKale Center record with eight three-pointers. And who could forget his last-second three-pointer to lift the Cougs to a thrilling 72-71 upset over cross-state rival Washington.
"Last year was the first time that I had ever been on a team in basketball that struggled," Thomas said. "It hurt, but it was a learning experience. I now believe you have to go through a losing season to see how much you don't want to lose."
With the struggles of the 1998-99 season behind them, the Cougar basketball program made a move. Enter new head coach Paul Graham. Graham, who was an assistant under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State prior to being named WSU's 14th men's basketball coach, brings a new level of intensity to the Cougar program, and it's written all over their backs, literally.
"There is a whole new intensity and attitude when we step out on the court for every practice. We have intensity written on the backs of our practice jerseys to remind us how hard we have to work," Thomas said. "The whole aim this year is winning, and nothing less will be accepted by Coach Graham."
While Thomas was not disappointed in his rookie campaign from last year, he was quick to point out that there many facets of his game he could improve upon. He returned home to California for the summer where he played pick-up games with current NBA players and worked at becoming a more complete player.
"I played a lot of good competition this summer and faired well," Thomas said. "By playing with that caliber of players really makes you push your game. If you want to be the best, they you have to practice and play against the best."
Thomas also explained the summer experience around the professional players as a maturing process in which he became more focused on his goals.
"One of the ultimate individual goals I have set for myself is to make the all-Pac-10 team," Thomas said. "But that's really the only individual goal I have to be selfish about. As a team we have the goal of making it to the NCAA tournament."
While many fans and critics will be quick to write off the Cougar basketball team as cellar dwellers of the Pac-10, Thomas thinks a lot of people are going to be in for a pleasant surprise.
"A lot of people have already picked us to finish last and written us off," Thomas said. "Anything is possible, and right now we have the mentality and toughness as a team to make March Madness a reality. With the hard work and the dedication we have put it, I can't imagine our team not playing in March."
With the new level of intensity surrounding the beginning of a new millennium of Cougar basketball, Thomas and his teammates are ready to embark on a new path of success, and Graham will be the one leading the pack.
"Coach Graham brings mental toughness and a dedication to winning to this program," said Thomas, who has now had three coaches in four years. "He doesn't baby us and that is what we need. The bottom line is that our team needs discipline and that is something we lacked last year."
The goals for Thomas and the Cougars have now been set and the work on the hardwood is well underway, but the obstacles and challenges of a rebuilding basketball team have only just begun. While Thomas knows the path to March Madness won't be easy an easy one, he is convinced this new challenge will bring success.
"As a team we have all had a lot of obstacles in our lives and that helps us," Thomas said. "We the young talent and the mental toughness to win ballgames. We have sacrificed a lot in the last year and we are dedicated to making Cougar basketball a winning tradition."
By Jeff R. Evans
WSU Sports Information