There have been very few wide-eyed moments in the basketball playing career of Medford native Michael Harthun.

There have been very few wide-eyed moments in the basketball playing career of Medford native Michael Harthun.

From the day he stepped on campus at South Medford High, he knew he belonged and confidently went about his duties. Over time, the 6-foot-3 point guard helped lead the Panthers to their best showings in program history, finishing as state champion in 2007 and runner-up in 2006.

Still confident, even Harthun can't hide his excitement over his next phase of basketball as a true freshman at Washington State University. Official practices begin today, although the Cougar players have been gathering informally for about five weeks to get in physical and mental shape for what stands to be an intriguing season in Pullman, Wash.

"Sometimes I sit back and it's kinda hard to believe I actually am here because I've dreamed about this for a long time," Harthun says. "For now, I'm just soaking it all up and enjoying every moment I can. Now that I'm here, I don't want to take advantage of it and not enjoy every minute of it because not everyone gets a chance to play college basketball."

Harthun capped his South Medford career ranked second in career scoring (1,955 points) and first in assists for a single season (198 in 2006) and career (602).

But as proud as he is of those numbers, they don't mean a whole lot now that he's fighting for playing time for the first time in his playing career. The Cougars return only one guard who has started a game in 6-1 senior Taylor Rochestie, and only one other — 6-6 junior Nikola Koprivica — has game experience at WSU.

"It's pretty competitive right now," says Harthun, who is one of five guards in the seven-deep recruiting class of 2008. "Everybody is working hard and trying to get in there for one of those spots."

Some of that hard work began in the summer with eight credits of classes and continued with pickup games during the summer. More recently, the Cougar players have been putting themselves through the paces with weight lifting, circuit training and shooting practice.

"The transition has been good so far," says Harthun. "It's definitely a different level of basketball, but I'm enjoying it. I like the new challenges, and every day you're going against a player as good as you if not better."

Like many who have donned the WSU uniform under third-year coach Tony Bennett, maybe the only unwelcome challenge is "The Hill." Located on the north side of Pullman, the steep incline has been a tool to help players shape up in the preseason.

"A lot of people throw up after doing it," says Harthun. "It's probably the hardest conditioning I've ever done as far as a single workout and how tired it makes you."

It will all be worth it, however, if the Cougars are able to take that internal drive to the basketball court in November.

Washington State is coming off a year in which it reached the Sweet 16 and tied a school record with 26 wins. The Cougars return two starters in Rochestie and 6-10 senior center Aron Baynes, but 10 of the 15 players on the roster have not played a single game in college.

"Even coach Bennett touched on it, but we're out to prove that we're not just going to fall off," says Harthun. "We know at this time we still have a lot of work to do because we're young, but hopefully we'll work as hard as we can and the results will be positive."

In his short time in Pullman, Harthun has apparently made a good impression on his teammates, with returning senior forward Daven Harmeling providing an insider's look when asked to give a scouting report on the team by

In his breakdown of Harthun, he said: "Very heady. Good decision-maker. Makes hard shots. Very team-oriented guy. Of all the guys, I feel he's the one who tries to learn the most or asks us seniors the most questions. Just being a student of the game and a gym rat."

Harthun is a little more self-critical, despite the nice comments.

"I knew I would have a lot of work to do, but I have even more work to do than I thought," he says. "It's a different level of basketball, and it's showed me a lot of weaknesses in my game stand out more than they did when I was in high school."

That said, Harthun has been working hard to narrow that gap. He's focused on catching and shooting instead of catching and immediately dribbling — not uncommon for someone who grew up as a point guard.

"At this level, what I've realized is if you waste any steps, you won't get a shot off," he says.

Harthun has worked at shooting guard as well as point guard. He didn't have that luxury at South Medford, although Harthun still was one of the best shooters in Panther history from 3-point range.

"So far it's looking like I'm going to be a (combination) guard, but that's good because it gives me the opportunity to be on the court in different positions," he says. "I didn't feel nearly as comfortable at (shooting guard) when I first came here, but after being here, I'm really beginning to enjoy coming off screens for a shot and getting a chance to be involved that way."

A considerable amount of credit is given to his veteran teammates for helping make the transition as smooth as possible.

"The older guys, with their leadership, have been great," he says. "They're really accepting of the freshmen and they definitely don't shy away from teaching us and asking us to hang out with them."

"On the court it's been everything I expected," adds Harthun. "I love all the coaches and get along great with all my teammates. I'm enjoying working hard and getting better and hopefully that will help the team be better, too."

It's no secret that the Cougars will need some of the freshmen to come in and contribute right away, with the most likely options being Harthun, his roommate Klay Thompson (6-6 guard), DeAngelo Casto (6-8 forward) and Marcus Capers (6-4 guard).

Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Abe Lodwick, who played at Mountain View High in Bend and was ousted in the 2006 state playoffs by Harthun's Panthers.

"As freshmen, we're coming in willing to do anything we can to contribute to the team," says Harthun.

For Harthun, that mentality can be traced back to his parents, Steve and Debbie. After living about 200 miles apart so their oldest son could play all four years at South Medford, the Harthuns finally sold their home in July and are together again in Silverton.

"They went through a lot and somehow worked through it," says the former Panther. "I think it's definitely rewarding for them to be back together. I'm happy for them because they gave up a lot for me."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail