HOOPS: Will Coug guards be deciding factor?

IS LADD READY TO EMERGE?

PULLMAN -- Credit Ken Bone for loading up on guards every recruiting cycle during his first three years in Pullman. The current depth at the position cushions Reggie Moore's offseason departure and keeps WSU's backcourt talented enough to help win this year in the Pac-12 Conference. Will the returning corps of shooters return the Cougars to a third consecutive postseason appearance?

Let's take a closer look at the WSU guards before they begin their non-conference schedule Saturday against Eastern Washington (4:30 p.m, TV: Pac-12 Networks).

Mike Ladd: A senior and team captain, Ladd spent most of the 2011-2012 season hampered by a nagging thumb injury that required a soft cast on his shooting hand. The Rainier Beach High graduate opted against having surgery during the offseason. Instead, he rested and rehabbed.

Ladd finally looked healthy during the season-opening ZZUMania scrimmage, showcasing the touch that helped him shoot 39 percent from three-point range his sophomore year at Fresno State. Ladd is also undoubtedly WSU's best man-to-man defender.

He could be saddled with shutting down opponent's best perimeter scorers night after night once Pac-12 play begins, and will almost certainly see more than the 19 minutes per game he averaged last season. If he is to help the Cougars climb into the top half of the Pac-12 standings, he must improve from the free throw line as well (36 percent last season).

Don't be shocked if Ladd is asked to share point guard duties with DaVonté Lacy and Royce Woolridge as the season progresses. Ladd proved an adequate ball handler last year when asked to bring the ball up the court, averaging less than one turnover per game.

DaVonté Lacy: Those who followed Lacy closely last season expect the sophomore to take a huge leap over his second year in Pullman. The Tacoma product plays with an edge that allows him to compensate for his lack of size (6-foot-3) and he features one of the best three-point strokes in the conference.

He isn't afraid to take a big shot, either.

Lacy highlighted an impressive freshman campaign when he knocked down a contested corner three and drew a foul in the waning seconds of WSU's 77-75 home victory over Cal.

Bone said during Pac-12 media day that the team's second-leading returning scorer dropped weight and toned up during the offseason. That should help him as he tries to solidify his place as WSU's second scoring option behind star forward Brock Motum. Whether Lacy develops into a premier scorer will depend on if he can morph from a dangerous outside shooter to a more well-rounded guard.

If last season is any indicator, he still has room to improve his ball handling and left-hand.

Royce Woolridge: The biggest unknown entering the 2012 season is whether Woolridge can replace Moore at point guard. Woolridge transferred from Kansas after his freshman season, then was forced to watch from the bench for a year while WSU struggled to clamp down defensively on most Pac-12 teams.

He said after ZZUMania he's eager to prove his defensive prowess after nearly two-and-a-half years away from game action.

So far, so good. Woolridge snatched three steals to go along with his 10 points in WSU's 62-50 exhibition win over St. Martin's Tuesday night at Beasley Coliseum. He averaged 30.2 points-per-game his senior year in high school. If he can post half those numbers his first season in the Pac-12, he will be an upgrade over Moore.

Dexter Kernich-Drew: Affectionately dubbed "The Hyphen" by the Zzu Crew, the Australian will likely come off the bench in an effort to provide some instant offense this season. Kernich-Drew might be the most athletically gifted player on the roster. His vertical leap is enormous and he possesses what many consider an adequate shooting stroke. This is the redshirt sophomore's third year in the program, and he'll need to take a tangible step forward to avoid being unseated by Demarquise Johnson next season.

Kernich-Drew averaged just 2.3 points-per-game and shot 35 percent from the field during his 2011-2012 campaign.

Dominic Ballard and Bryce Leavitt: Both are walk-ons who won't see significant minutes this season unless a rash of injuries hits Bone's squad for the second year. Ballard starred at O'Dea for three years and Bothell High for one, finishing his senior year with 21.6 points, 7.1 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Leavitt was a three-sport standout at Kennewick High who'll have to slowly ascend the depth chart if he plans to stay at WSU for the duration of his college career. Don't be surprised if Bone decides to redshirt him.

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