Cougar hoops: Veterans aplenty

PULLMAN -- Cougar assistant basketball coach <b>Tony Bennett</b> says the goal is to steal a page from the guide to success written by Washington State's football program. "As soon as guys graduate, there are more guys waiting for their turn to step up as leaders," Bennett said.

That doesn't happen overnight. But the building blocks are there for the hoops team to start getting to the place, like the football team, where they don't rebuild from one season to the next, they reload.

One of the most tangible steps in the right direction is found this summer in Pullman. Just like the football team, every member of the basketball squad is staying under the Palouse sun to work out together.

That type of dedication has the Cougar football team riding the wave of three consecutive 10-win seasons. For much of the last decade, 10 wins a season was about all you could hope for from the basketball team. But not anymore. Under first-year coach Dick Bennett, the Cougars posted a 13-16 record this past year and came within a few bounces of adding several more to the W column.

While standout guard Marcus Moore is off to try his hand at the NBA, the Cougars still return three of their top four scorers and rebounders: seniors-to-be Thomas Kelati, Jeff Varem and Shami Gill.

Kelati, a 6-5 guard from Walla Walla, has been with the Cougars through thick and thin and is determined to go out on a winning note, Tony Bennett says.

Poised to take over Moore's role as team leader, Kelati is an excellent shooter -- 44 percent on 160 three-point tries last season -- who wants to showcase the other assests of his game in his final campaign on the Palouse. Last year he averaged 11.1 point per game. He also dished off 42 assists, pulled down 83 rebounds and grabbed 38 steals.

Varem, a 6-6, 235-pound guard, came on strong for the Cougars last season after two years in the JC ranks. He's an exceptional athlete, but given to bouts of inconsistentcy due to the fact he didn't take up the sport until late in high school. He started 14 of WSU's 28 games last year, and averaged 9.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest.

Gill, a 6-7 238-pound forward, is a rebounding machine, pulling down a team-leading 153 (5.3 per game) this past season. He is highly respected by coaches and teammates and will play a pivotal role in WSU's quest to finish above .500 in 2004-05.

In addition, 6-6 foward Chris Schlatter -- the team's second-leading rebounder last season (110 total/3.8 per game) -- is back for the Cougars in 2004-05. He started 21 games last season.

WSU also returns a pair of scrappy guards from Seattle in juniors-to-be Anthony Grant and Randy Green. Both are perimeter-type players who add solid depth in the backcourt. Both averaged 14 minutes of PT per game last season. And Green was the Cougars' second-most accurate shooter from three-point range, connecting on 25 of 75 shots from beyond the arc.

Isaiah Simmons, a 6-3 senior guard from Tacoma who walked on a year ago, also is back. He recently was awarded a scholarship for 2004-05 season. He appeared in 15 games last season, and played a season-high 29 minutes against Arizona in his lone start.

Complementing this core of veterans will be six incoming freshmen (see June 16 story Wait till they're old enough to shave for perspective on how this group will contribute this season. At least three of them figure to see serious playing time in 2004-05. "The upperclassmen will show these young guys the way," Tony Bennett said, "They already have a year in our system."


Lance Den Boer and Justin Garcia, a pair of lightly used back ups, have left the Cougar program. Den Boer, a guard from Sunnyside, averaged 1.7 points in 14 games off the bench last season. Garcia, a junior from Mira Loma, Calif., appeared in seven games and scored four points in 2003-04. Den Boer is believed to be headed to Central Washington University, while Garcia will probably play somewhere in California.

Cody Boyd, the standout tight end on the Cougar football team, will not be back for another season of hoops. He played in two games for the Cougar cagers last season. "It was a great opportunity to learn from an amazing basketball coach in Dick Bennett but I think that being away from the football team was just too rough," he said last week. "And it is very hard to stay in shape for two sports. I thought that I could handle it because I did in high school, but I must be getting old or something. I am still a huge fan and will be watching all the guys and cheering them on."

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