Kelati key to Cougars' hope for post-season play

<b>PULLMAN -- If anything, you can't accuse Washington State senior Thomas Kelati of not knowing his role. As the Cougars wrap up the first half of the Pac-10 season, Kelati puts the onus on himself to help WSU accomplish some of the many things he has yet to experience college: things like a winning season, a conference tournament win, and a berth in the NIT or NCAA tournament.

Kelati, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, is the Cougars' leading scorer with 12 points per game. Five times this year, he's been the only WSU player to notch double figures in a game, like Sunday when he scored 12 in the 66-48 loss at No. 10 Washington.

"The second half of the year is going to be huge for him," said WSU associate head coach Tony Bennett. "He's going to have to take another step for us to have more success. He holds a big key, because he has the experience that so many of our guys don't have."

Kelati recognizes his burden.

"I still think I could do more," Kelati said. "After every game I'm watching film saying ‘I could have done that' or ‘I could have done that.' Not just as a scorer, but things like passing the ball and defense. Starting now, I'm trying to be more assertive."

The assertiveness he speaks of also includes his actions as a team leader. Kelati is one of four seniors on a freshman-laden team and the one with the most game experience. He has been a full-time starter since his sophomore year, and has played some 1,000 minutes more than the Cougar with the next highest total. But as the eldest of the team's elder statesman, Kelati isn't especially vocal.

"I do my best just to give some insight," he said. "But it's easier because I have three other seniors with me to help the freshmen we have. We all established a relationship in the summer, and I think it's carried over into the season."

Says the younger Coach Bennett: "He's a leader on this team, and we're really going to miss him next year."

In three and a half years, Kelati has lost 65 percent of the games he's played in, as the Cougars went 13-41 in ex-coach Paul Graham's final two seasons, and are 21-24 in a year and a half under Dick Bennett.

However, winning is not a foreign concept to Kelati. At Walla Walla (Wash.) High School, he was a two-sport athlete who won a state championship in basketball and was all-conference in cross-country.

In Kelati's first year at WSU, he started 15 games and averaged 3.3 points. The next year he was the regular starting two-guard and poured in 10 per outing, forming a potent scoring backcourt with point guard Marcus Moore, who was a year ahead of Kelati.

Graham was fired after that year, ushering in the Bennett regime. A veteran coach with more than 35 years of experience on the bench, Bennett came to Pullman and changed everything the Cougars had been used to. He junked Graham's high-octane system -- which, as it was, wasn't getting good gas mileage anyway -- and brought in a defense-first mentality. While Bennett's way made for much lower scores than in the Graham era, it also meant WSU was giving up far fewer points. Kelati, however, saw his number of shot attempts go up last year, and this year is on pace to fire up more shots than he's ever taken.

"I've been through a lot, bad times and good times. It was a very frustrating time for me, but Coach Bennett and the new staff, they've opened up a new door for the program," Kelati said. "Just to be able to compete makes you feel good. He's made us compete, and I think that's all you can ask for."

Along with senior forward Jeff Varem, Kelati has led this year's Cougars to an 8-8 overall record, 3-4 in the Pac-10. Such a win-loss mark isn't going to gain WSU any votes in the polls, but it is a vast improvement from years past, as the team went 30-114 in the conference from 1996-2003. With Varem serving as Mr. Inside (10.5 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Kelati as Mr. Outside (40.4 percent from three-point land), WSU is one of the surprise teams on the West Coast, especially considering their three other starters are all freshmen.

Tony Bennett, a one-time NBA veteran who knows a little bit about shooting himself, has high praise for Kelati's shooting acumen.

"When he gets it going, he's a tremendous shooter," Bennett said. "He's a guy that's won many games for us."

Given a little more help on the offensive end, Kelati might finally be able to get a taste of what he's been starving for since he became a Cougar: March Madness.

"Everyone talks about the NCAA tournament, and how great it is to go there," he said. "I would love the chance to do that, to get there.

"Realistically, I think we have a good chance to make the Pac-10 tournament and make the NIT. You never know, though. We have some tough games…we just have to keep playing basketball."

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