The Cougars managed only 12 wins last season, which was twice as many as the year before and the most since 1997. As of Thursday, Washington State was 1-2 after falling to Montana 75-71 Wednesday night.
The Grizzlies (3-2) of the Big Sky Conference trailed only once, when J Locklier's free throw with 2:08 to go gave Washington State a 60-59 lead. Montana then made three of four free throws in the final 17 seconds to win the game in Missoula.
"If we're going to be a good basketball team, which I think we will, you have to hit free throws, WSU coach Paul Graham said. "If we make our free throws down the stretch, we win the game."
Washington State was supposed to return its entire starting lineup, but events in the off-season changed the team's fortunes.
Shooting guard David Adams decided to transfer, while forward Framecio Little dropped out of school because of academics. Mike Bush the Cougar's leading scorer spent the winter playing wide receiver for the football team, but played Wednesday scoring a team high 24 points. He is expected to miss several games next month when Washington State appears in the Sun Bowl.
"This is my third year in the league and our basketball team is getting better," said Graham, at the league's media day last month in Los Angeles. "Hopefully this team will continue to grow and get better."
Graham said he expects Marcus Moore, Jerry McNair and Bush to improve the Cougars enough to make a run in the Pac-10 tournament despite the loss of key players from last year's squad.
Up next for struggling Washington State is Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday and Idaho on Tuesday.
"Anytime you have a tournament at the end of the year, it gives the have-not teams another chance to be competitive," he said. "I think having the tournament is good for our league and good for those teams that don't do well in the beginning."