Hoops Round Up: Optimism in the Palouse air

<B>A .500 CONFERENCE record isn't exactly the stuff of lore. But for Washington State, which hasn't sniffed at the post-season in a decade, break even at this point in the year is enough to spark an optimism unseen around Pullman since <b>Ike Fontaine</b> was lighting it up.

The Cougars are 2-2 in the Pac-10 following their win at USC on Saturday. And by all rights, they would be 3-1 were it not for some suspect officiating at UCLA two days prior. In all, WSU is 7-6, including a conference-opening victory over Stanford.

The Cougars' steady, heady work in Pac-10 play -- save for a lackluster loss to Cal -- is in contrast to a nonconference slate in which they lost to Oklahoma State by 52 points and then, three days later, came one shot away from upsetting Gonzaga -- a Zag team, by the way, that subsequently beat Oklahoma State.

So what is the secret to WSU's new-found consistency?

"When we make out shots, that always helps," said freshman point guard Derrick Low.

Low's statement is backed up by the numbers. In nine nonconference games, WSU shot 34.3 percent from the field and averaged 49.1 points a night. Against Pac-10 opponents, the Cougars are hitting 45.3 percent of their shots and scoring 63.2 points a game.

"We've gotten better offensively. We'll never be a great offensive team, but we've improved," WSU head coach Dick Bennett said.

One player who's been making a big-time difference is senior forward Jeff Varem. While the 6-foot-6 powerhouse is playing out of position down low, he has stepped up his game lately, averaging 17.7 points and 9.8 rebounds against Pac-10 schools.

"He had a good game against Stanford, and he's found his niche since then," senior guard Thomas Kelati said of Varem. "I think he'll carry it through the season."

Freshman guard Kyle Weaver has also improved his play against conference opponents. Early in the year Weaver started in place of an injured Low, but once Low returned, Weaver seemed to get lost on the bench, even collecting a few DNPs. In three Pac-10 games, though, the 6-foot-5 Wisconsin native has played 25 minutes a night, averaging 9.3 points and five rebounds.

"We have a mind set that we expect to win, and that carries us," Low said. "As long as we come out strong for the whole game, we'll do good. That was the problem against UCLA (a double-overtime loss). We played strong in the first half and soft in the second half, and that was the difference."

HOOP NOTES:

* Mark Vershaw, who played under Bennett at Wisconsin, has been practicing with the Cougars this week. As a 6-foot-9 forward, Vershaw was the leading scorer on Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four team. He's a graduate school student at WSU. He has taken part in the team's regular drills, and after practice has been working with freshmen post players Robbie Cowgill and Chris Henry.

* After Wednesday's practice the team sang "Happy Birthday" to freshman forward Daven Harmeling, who turned 19.

* Shami Gill has missed three games with a back injury. Bennett said the injury has been a gradually developing one that may have started a couple of years ago. Doctors don't know when Gill can return.

* Walk-on senior Isaiah Simmons of Tacoma has been ruled academically ineligible. He can appeal but his career may be done.

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