So much for redshirt; Cowgill CENTER of attention

<b>PULLMAN -- Robbie Cowgill wasn't supposed to be playing 36 minutes against Arizona State on Thursday night. And he certainly wasn't supposed to be starting in half the Cougars' games this season. Nope. When the Washington State coaching staff signed the 6-foot-10 center out of Westwood High in Austin, Texas, they figured this first year for him would be spent lifting weights, practicing, and watching games from a great courtside seat.

Instead, he's emerged as the surprise of the season, showing all kinds of moxie against nationally ranked powers like Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and Washington.

In 17 games, including starts in nine of them, Cowgill is averaging 5.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and leads the team with 15 blocked shots. He is averaging 21 minutes per game -- a figure on the rise given his 34-minute average over the last three games. In short, he's establishing himself as the best of the Cougars' freshmen big men.

"To tell you the truth, I've been surprised with how much I've gotten to play," Cowgill said.

So what exactly happened on the way to what was supposed to be a redshirt year?

WSU associate head coach Tony Bennett says the staff seriously considered redshirting Cowgill. The main reason was so that the 18-year-old -- whose frame is reminiscent of a young Shawn Bradley -- could put some muscle on a body that weighed less than 200 pounds when he arrived on campus.

But after a preseason injury to Chris Henry, a solid 6-foot-9, 248-pound freshman who was expected to play a lot, Cowgill stepped in and earned himself a spot in the rotation.

"It's definitely a big adjustment. The strength of the players and the intensity of play [is the biggest difference]. So far it‘s going pretty well," Cowgill said.

Early on, Cowgill admits he was unsure whether he didn't need that redshirt, but in the team's first exhibition game against Division II Lewis-Clark State, he finally felt like he could cut it, gathering 10 points and seven rebounds.

"I really had no idea what to expect, playing another college team," Cowgill said about his first game at Friel Court. "Then I felt like, ‘Okay, these guys are bigger and stronger [than in high school], but there are things that I can do against them.'

"Before that game I wasn't sure if I'd be able to hang with these guys. After that game it gave me a little confidence that I belong."

Since then, Cowgill has gone against prominent frontline players such as Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf, Oklahoma State's Ivan McFarlin, Stanford's Matt Haryasz and Oregon State's David Lucas.

Cowgill says he especially admired Turiaf, because, "Once he gets the ball in the post one-on-one it's going to be two points. He's not incredibly big, but he's long and tall. After I put on a couple more pounds and get in the gym, hopefully I can get touches around the rim like that."

ASIDE FROM TURIAF, one of the toughest foes Cowgill has encountered this year is a man who hasn't played a college game in five years, against whom Cowgill has faced every day in practice for the past week.

WSU recently brought in Mark Vershaw as a volunteer team manager. Vershaw, 6-foot-9, was the leading scorer on Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four team coached by Dick Bennett. Vershaw practices with WSU as another body for 5-on-5 drills, and after practice works with the young bigs -- Cowgill, Henry, and freshman Daven Harmeling -- on improving their interior games.

"He's got a ton of moves," Cowgill says of his new teacher. "I've been trying to soak up everything I can from him. It's been good to work with him."

As for Cowgill's abilities, Vershaw says: "He has a good feel for the game. His range is good for a guy his size. That he's even out here surviving in the Pac-10 with that frame is impressive. This isn't a league where you can hide. As time goes on and he gets stronger, his ceiling is wide open to get better."

Tony Bennett also has high hopes for Cowgill's future. "He's a kid who has a big upside because he's 6-10, fairly athletic and has some skills," the coach said. "As he gets stronger and matures from his experiences, I'm hopeful that by the time you see him as a junior or a senior you're going to say ‘That's a really good player.'"

Cowgill also appears to be handling himself off the court as well. He is in the honors program and earned a 3.8 GPA for fall semester. He says he's dealing with being away from home better than anticipated.

"It's a lot different here than back at home, as far as (Pullman) being a small college town. But all of my teammates and I are really close. We do everything together," he said. "All the coaches and players are like a family away from home."

As the Cougars go into the second half of the Pac-10 season, Cowgill still has bigger challenges ahead. Ahead Saturday is Arizona (and 6-foot-11 future pro Channing Frye). And then later in the year there'll be a rematch with Arizona State's superstar forward Ike Diogu (a probable lottery pick) who was no picnic last night as he led the Devils to a 68-62 victory over the Cougs with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

On top of the usual wear-and-tear one takes from simply being a center in Division I basketball, Cowgill will have to overcome his lack of bulk and the fact that he's going to be playing more games now than he did in high school -- basically the "rookie wall" that is talked about when players move up a level.

That's he'll even have a chance to scale the wall, though, is at least a small victory.

"If you had told me I'd be in this position last year, I wouldn't have thought that," Cowgill said.

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