Cougar hoops will be fueled by Kelati and youth

PULLMAN -- <b>Dick Bennett</b>, energized but uncertain about what exactly will happen when the whistle blows, looks this season to take the next step toward building long-term success at Washington State. Last season, the first under Bennett, the Cougars won 13 games -- the most in seven years. This time around, he's blending veterans with a ton of youth, a recipe that tends to cloud the tea leaves.

Jeff Vareem

"Everyone expects it to be better than the first. But with the second year comes the first batch of recruits to blend with the veterans. With that the results are sometimes unpredictable," says Bennett.

"The rebuilding process is clearly not an overnight thing, not if you want it to last," he adds. "We're in the phase where we're trying to build the nucleus of players who are fitted to what we want to accomplish on and off the floor. We are doing that with our recruiting as well as with our kids who remain."

Bennett, a master of rebuilding programs, enters his second season after directing WSU to as many wins in his first campaign as the Cougars produced in the two previous seasons combined prior to his arrival.

For the first time in four seasons, the Cougars will be without Marcus Moore, who concluded his career among WSU's all-time leaders in scoring, three-point shots, assists and steals. Still, six letterwinners return who combined for 97 starts last season.

Thomas Kelati

Senior guard Thomas Kelati (Walla Walla), an honorable mention All-Pac-10 pick, is the top cat. He averaged 11.1 points per game last season and finished second in the Pac-10 in three-point shooting accuracy, hitting 44 percent from beyond the arc. His 71 treys last season rank seventh on the Cougar single-season list. He's already sixth on the Cougar all-time 3-pointer list with 151.

Senior guard Jeff Varem (Benue, Nigeria) made 14 starts a year ago and showed flashes of brilliance. He scored in double figures 10 times, including a 22-point/seven rebound effort in a home win over USC. Consistency was a challenge for Varem, though, as he tallied four points or less in five outings.

"You would expect the scoring load to fall on the shoulders of Thomas Kelati and Jeff Varem, but I don't think either one of them is a dominant scorer," Bennett said. "We need more balance than we had last season."

Shami Gill

Senior forwards Shami Gill (Mission, British Columbia) and Chris Schlatter (Lafayette, Calif.) will be two of the players Bennett counts on to help juice the offense. Last season, Gill and Schlatter made 28 and 21 starts, respectively, but combined to score just 10.5 points per game.

"Every one of the returning guys has to have a more consistent offensive game," Bennett said. "They all lacked that last season." Gill led WSU with 5.3 rebounds per game and finished 16th in the Pac-10. Schlatter finished second to Gill among Cougars in total rebounds with 110.

Chris Schlatter

"If Shami Gill has the same effort as last season, with some improved strength, he will remain very valuable," Bennett said. "The same is true about Chris Schlatter. I never expect guys to improve in feet and yards. I just want inches."

Other returnees include senior guard Isaiah Simmons (Tacoma) and junior guard Randy Green (Renton). Simmons joined the team as a walk-on last season and played in 15 games, including one start. His effort earned him a scholarship for his senior season. Green played all 29 games, made five starts and shot .333 from 3-point range.

"We brought in six freshmen, I am sure none of whom you (the media) has heard about. However, I like each one of them because as a group, they make us a better team. We have a very good class and if we can combine it with another good class, we will have a solid nucleus in place," Bennett said.

Of the new crop, Derrick Low (Honolulu) looks to provide instant impact. He was ticketed to be the Cougars' starting point guard, but fractured his right foot in practice last month and isn't expected back until late December.

"The point guard situation is of some concern. Derrick Low was the guy we brought in to run the show for four years and he is very capable. We will probably have to spread the duties around. Not to say we will start different guys, but we will have to move the ball more with the pass and get more guys down the floor," Bennett said.

Derrick Low

Low's prep accolades include "Mr. Basketball" as the top player in the state of Hawaii each of his last three seasons at Iolani Highl where he led his team to three straight state titles. Low will have big shoes to fill following Marcus Moore.

"The older kids are going to have to make it possible for Derrick to play like he can," Bennett said. "He is more of a distributor than a scorer. Marcus Moore is a huge loss because he did everything for us with the ball from baseline to baseline. You can never overestimate the loss of a player like him."

Low averaged 15 points and 5 assists per game in high school. Of note is that because his team tended to win by such large margins, Low tyically sat out a quarter or more each game.

In addition to Low, there are a half dozen other new faces in Pullman this season, all freshmen. Among them are centers Chris Henry (Santa Ana, Calif.) and Robbie Cowgill (Austin, Texas).

Henry, out for at least a month with an ankle injury, has the most size among the newcomers at 6-foot-9, 248 pounds. If healthy, he'll see considerable playing time this season. He averaged nearly 11 points as a senior at Mater Dei High School.

Cowgill is the tallest of the freshmen at 6-foot-10. He was a second team All-State selection as a senior at Westwood High School after averaging 20 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks per game.

The other new member of the front line is Daven Harmeling (Grand Junction, Colo.), a 6-foot-7, 215 pound forward out of Fruita Monument High School who averaged 21 points and eight rebounds as a senior.

The backcourt additions include Josh Akognon (Petaluma, Calif.), Kyle Weaver (Beloit, Wis.) and invited walk-on Alex Kirk (Prosser).

Akognon is the best shooter in the trio and ranked fifth in California last season with 30 points per game at Casa Grande High School. He recorded six games with 40 or more points, including a 54-point effort in his secondto- last prep outing. He has the ability to back up Low at the point guard position.

Weaver averaged over 18 points per game at Beloit Memorial High School and the Knights to the Division I state quarterfinals.

Kirk is a good ball handler who tallied 7.8 assists per game last season and registered a 3.8 to 1 assist to turnover ratio at The Hill School, a prep institution in Pottstown, Pa.

"Any number of our freshmen can contribute," Bennett said. "I have been pleasantly surprised by each of them. Having said that, we won't know what we have until we play games."

Bennett added, "Your expectations need to be high, but I don't want to be ridiculous. I'm not prepared at this point to say how high we can reach."

One reason for Bennett's caution may be the Cougars' schedule. WSU plays six of its nine nonconference games on the road, including one at 2004 Final Four participant Oklahoma State. The Cougars also play BYU at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City and host Gonzaga, both 2004 NCAA Tournament teams.

"At this stage of rebuilding, you have to pay an initial price and go on the road," Bennett said. "The schedule is perhaps too rugged at this phase, but I didn't want to wait another year."

The Cougars open the regular season with two homes games: Nov. 18 vs. Montana State and Nov. 24 vs. Georgia Southern. Pac-10 play starts New Year's Eve in the Spokane Arena against Stanford. The Cougars will follow up in Spokane two days later against Cal.

* Derrick Low comes to Pullman with a boat load of wins under his belt. His Iolani High teams won the final 72 games of Low's career against schools from Hawaii and posted a 101-4 record against state competition during his four years of varsity ball.

* The Cougars' annual trip to Seattle to play the Huskies will be Jan. 23. That game will be one of at least five this season that will be broadcast live. FOX Sports Net will air that one as well as games against Oregon State, Jan. 13; UCLA, Feb. 3; and Arizona State, Jan. 27. In addition, ABC will air a Cougar basketball game for the first time in nearly nine years -- the road test against Oregon on Feb. 12.

* The Cougars were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10 in the annual preseason media poll. Arizona garnered 19 of 26 first place votes and is the favorite to win the Pac-10 title. Washington was selected second, followed by Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, USC, California, Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona State.

* To call Marcus Moore's WSU career brilliant would seem an understatement. He is second on the all-time list for assists (4.15 per game), third in steals (168 total), fifth in scoring (1,458 points) and fifth in 3-point field goals (152).

* Anthony Grant, a Seattle product and JC transfer from College of Eastern Utah, has left the program. The 6-5 wingman played in 27 games for the Cougars in 2003-04 and started seven. He averaged 2.1 points per game. In the spring, seldom-used Lance Den Doer and Justin Garcia announced they would be transferring.

Legendary 1950s-era Cougar baseball and basketball player Gene Conley was recently picked by the Pac-10 to be inducted into its basketball hall of honor. At WSU in 1950, Conley played center on Jack Friel's Pacific Coast Conference Northern Division championship team, and pitched on Buck Bailey's 1950 Cougar baseball team that advanced to the College World Series championship against Texas. Professionally, Conley is one of few people in sports history to play on world championship teams in different sports. He played on the Boston Celtics' NBA championship teams of 1959, 1960 and 1961, and pitched for the Milwaukee Braves when they captured the 1957 World Series. He played in the baseball All-Star Game several times.

Links to visit:
2004-05 Washington State men's basketball schedule
2004-05 Washington State men's basketball roster

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