PULLMAN - Tony Bennett wanted Marcus Capers. Wanted him badly.
So badly, in fact, Bennett – then coaching the Washington State men’s basketball team – just might have told a snow-white lie when Capers left his home in sunny Florida to make his recruiting trip to Pullman in the fall of 2007.
“It was one of their first football games,” Capers said. “I remember they played Idaho, and I thought (WSU’s) Brandon Gibson was the best receiver I’ve ever seen in my life.
“It was about 40 degrees. I was like, ‘Tony, it’s cold.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, this is the coldest it will ever get.’ I was like, ‘For real? This is not bad.’ ”
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A year later, Capers moved to Pullman and discovered that Bennett was a fine coach but a lousy weatherman.
“I woke up this morning and I cried,” Capers deadpanned on a recent frosty morning in Pullman.
There are times when Capers’ teammates and coaches must feel like crying for joy that Bennett and then-assistant coach Matt Woodley were able to persuade Capers to leave sunny Florida for a colder climate.
Capers, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound junior guard, will never win any shooting contests – he didn’t sink his first college 3-pointer until this season. But Capers is a high-quality defender who often draws the opposition’s top scorer, and he dunks like few people can.
“I really believe he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, I really do,” WSU forward Abe Lodwick said. “It’s a big statement, but Marcus is that good of a defender in my opinion.”
“He’s a really good athlete,” California coach Mike Montgomery said. “He plays really hard.
“He can defend, he can (rebound), he can hit open shots, drive it to the rim.”
Capers, playing off-guard and point guard, has started all 18 games for the 13-5 Cougars. He’s averaging 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 29.8 minutes a game. He leads WSU with 3.0 assists per turnover, and he’s shooting 54.5 percent from the floor, mostly from close range.
“Marcus has kind of settled into his role,” Washington State coach Ken Bone said. “He knows what is expected out of him and plays within himself.”
Says Lodwick: “What he brings to our team is unreal good. What he brings defensively, people see that. They see the tip dunks.
“But at the same time, he’s put in so much time on his jump shot. His first couple years, he couldn’t throw it in the ocean.”
Capers has great leaping ability and long arms, so he rebounds unusually well for a 6-4 guard in the Pacific-10 Conference.
“He’s not real bulky,” Bone said, “but he’s just such a great athlete. He just kind of finds a way to get in there. And he’s quick and athletic.”
“He’s really long,” Montgomery said. “He’s a great offensive rebounder and a good defensive rebounder because he’s quick off his feet. He plays above the rim.”
WSU fans love to watch Capers dunk, and Capers loves to give the fans what they want. Capers said he never dunked until his sophomore season of high school, after he grew from 5-9 to 6-3 between basketball seasons.
Capers said his first dunk remains his most memorable.
“I hung on the rim a little bit, screamed,” Capers said with a laugh. “I was just, ‘Oh! Oh! I just dunked!’
“I almost called a timeout! Coach is just, ‘Get back on ‘D’! I was like, ‘OK, OK, OK.’ ”
Capers is extremely personable, but Lodwick said that wasn’t always the case.
“He was a quiet, real shy kid when he came out. Sometimes, I wish we could kind of go back to that,” Lodwick joked.
Capers said he’s toying with the idea of turning out for football at WSU as a wide receiver, even though his high school football career ended after one junior varsity game as a freshman.
“I was 5-9, probably 130 pounds,” Capers said. “I got hit one time, and I was just like, ‘Maybe this isn’t a sport I want to play.’ ”
Fortunately for the Cougars, Capers did want to play college basketball. The communications major said he turned down offers from such schools as Florida State, Miami, Penn State, Illinois and Clemson.
“Out of all the schools, I feel like Washington State gave me the most attention,” Capers said. “Any time something was written on the Internet about me thinking about going to another school, Matt would fly down and I’d see him at my practice the next day.”
Still, Capers never would have gone to Pullman if former WSU point guard Taylor Rochestie had not learned how badly Bennett (now coaching at Virginia) wanted Capers after the Cougars had run out of scholarships. Rochestie got on the phone and told Capers that he would let him take his scholarship.
“I was like, ‘Hello? What?’ ” Capers recalled.
Rochestie wound up staying on scholarship when another player left, but Capers has never forgotten Rochestie’s gesture.
“That’s something you do for somebody you’re related to,” Capers said. “Taylor didn’t really know me. He just knew Tony had a lot of confidence in me.”
Confidence in Capers’ basketball skills, and his ability to find a warm winter coat.
ARIZONA STATE (9-8, 1-4 PAC-10) AT WSU (13-5, 3-3)
7 p.m., Friel Court, Pullman, no TV, 850-AM
Series: Arizona State leads, 34-33. The Cougars won six straight before going 0-2 last season.
Statistical leaders: For ASU – Trent Lockett, 13.4 ppg; Kyle Cain 6.3 rpg; Jamelle McMillan 4.4 apg. For WSU – Klay Thompson, 22.9 ppg; DeAngelo Casto, 6.4 rpg; Thompson, 4.0 apg.
Scouting report: WSU coach Ken Bone said Wednesday that starting point guard Reggie Moore will play tonight. Bone suspended Moore for one game for his arrest on marijuana charges. In Pac-10 games, the Sun Devils have been outrebounded by nearly 12 a game, average 58 points and shoot 29 percent from 3-point range. ASU starting wing Carrick Felix is expected to be out tonight (sick).
Next: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, vs. Arizona, Friel Court, FSN.
Howie Stalwick, contributing writer