As a Mountlake Terrace High School senior in the spring of 2008, John Allen was looking to play college basketball. He was courted by several schools, including Western Washington University, but the chance to walk on at Washington State University was too tempting to pass up.
Two years later, having redshirted in his first season with the Cougars and playing sparingly the next, Allen was ready to give WWU a second look.
Now another two years later, he could hardly be happier.
Allen is in his second season as a full-time starter for the Vikings, and the team is soaring as the 2011-12 regular season moves into its final few weeks. Having dispatched Simon Fraser 86-75 Saturday night, WWU is 18-3 this season with Allen — the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Week each of the past two weeks — playing a primary role.
“We’re starting to hit our stride,” he said. “From what I’ve seen and with what we’ve done, I think we can be up there with the best teams in the country. So it’s pretty exciting.”
Allen, who sat out his senior season at Mountlake Terrace because of an eligibility issue, ended up at WSU after being invited to walk on by former coach Tony Bennett. Allen then spent his first season as a redshirt, meaning he was allowed to practice but not play.
Under new coach Ken Bone the next season (Bennett left to become the head coach at Virginia), Allen appeared in 13 games, averaging 3.3 minutes and 0.4 points a game. Knowing he wanted more out of his college career, he decided to move on.
Still, Allen says he has no regrets about his two years in Pullman.
“It was definitely a good decision for me,” he said. “I got to play a year under coach Bennett, who is arguably one of the best coaches in the country. And I wanted to see what it was like being at that level.
“I didn’t play much, but it was just an experience that I was real fortunate to have.”
Longtime Vikings coach Brad Jackson, meanwhile, had no hard feelings about Allen going elsewhere back in 2008.
“The way I look at it,” Jackson explained, “we recruit a lot of players who have options. I know (going to WSU) was kind of a dream for John at the time Bennett was there. So my position with John was that if you feel like that’s something you want to do, we’ll leave the door open. And if things don’t work out, get back to us.
“He needed to go try it, but when it didn’t look like it was going to work out the way he wanted it to … I think he’d always felt pretty comfortable here with our coaching staff and our school. And when he came (in the fall of 2010), he was all in.”
Allen is a 6-foot-1 guard who is quick in the open court and deft with the ball. He is the team’s second leading scorer (14.8 points per game) through 21 games while shooting a brisk .510 from the field (102-for-200), .440 from the 3-point line (48-for-109) and a team-best .894 from the free throw line (59-for-66). He also leads the Vikings in steals (2.2) and is tied for the team lead in assists (3.1).
For the two weeks he was honored by the GNAC, Allen averaged 20.8 points, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals in four games.
His biggest flaw last season, at least according to his coach, was his defense.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t think he played very good defense last year at all,” Jackson said. “But this year he’s done a really good job of improving at that end of the floor. His assist-to-turnover ratio has also improved and he’s scoring big for us, so we’re just really pleased with his development and maturity.”
By his own admission, Allen went through a recent midseason slump due largely to lax practice habits. Or as he put it, “I was being lazy. I wasn’t in the gym that extra hour or two a day and it was really affecting my play.”
Allen estimates he now spends five or six hours of his own time in the gym each week, often by himself. “I just like to be there with a ball,” he explained. “I’m in there having fun, not really thinking about anything and getting a good sweat in. I just absolutely love it.”
Jackson ranks Allen “right up there” with the top shooters he has had in his 27 seasons at WWU, but says there is more to Allen’s game than just scoring.
“There have been games where he’s played great this year and he wasn’t our leading scorer,” Jackson said. “So I think he’s been enjoying his teammates a lot, and he’s doing a good job of being supportive and making other people better as well.
“As a coaching staff, we’ve really challenged him to take some leadership and he’s just been great. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, but he also has a great feel for the game itself and how the team is doing.
“John has always been a good team guy,” Jackson said, “and he is very, very serious about his team doing well.”