Hoops: Riding the roller coaster with Kyle Weaver

<b>PULLMAN -- It's not uncommon to hear an athlete describe a game, a season, or even a career as a "roller-coaster ride." As a cliché, it's right up there with "as long as we play our game" and "we're taking it one game at a time." But in the case of Washington State swingman Kyle Weaver, comparing his freshman year to an amusement park ride is about as accurate a description as one can get.

To get a picture of Weaver's season, you have to break it down into four parts. Act I began in an October practice, when starting point guard Derrick Low broke his right foot and Weaver became a surprise addition to the Cougars' starting lineup.

Act II began in the sixth game of the year, when Low returned from injury and Weaver subsequently found himself glued to the bench. Act III covered most of January, as Weaver played his way back into the starting five at small forward. And Act IV has seen Weaver move back on the bench, hoping the roller-coaster is due for another incline.

Each act of this production began like the one before it: Out of nowhere and largely unexpected.

As the Cougars were in the middle of getting schooled by California on Jan. 2, head coach Dick Bennett put the 6-foot-5, 185-pound Weaver into the game with 10 minutes remaining. While he couldn't bring WSU back by himself, Weaver played with enough smarts (eight points, two assists, one turnover) and spark (seven trips to the free throw line and four fouls himself) that Bennett made him a starter for the next game, a double-overtime loss to UCLA.

In the three weeks that followed, Weaver averaged 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field and 78.6 percent from the free throw line.

When Low got injured, not many people thought of Weaver, who played small forward/big guard at Beloit High in Wisconsin, as the ideal man for the job. But he beat out fellow freshman Josh Akognon, and went from someone the WSU coaches were thinking of redshirting to the team's stand-in quarterback.

"Hopefully that will be my strength as I get older, being able to adapt and doing different things depending on who we're playing," Weaver said. "I just wanna be one of those guys where I can hurt teams in different ways. I don't wanna be one-dimensional."

As the starting point guard, however, Weaver was doing too many different things. He was just as likely to make an eye-popping pass or sensational bucket (averaging a little under five points, four rebounds and three assists) as he was to send the ball sailing out of bounds (2.8 turnovers) or throw up a shot that would make Bennett cringe before it even left Weaver's hands (26.3 percent shooting from the field).

When Low returned on Dec. 7, Weaver became nearly invisible, not playing in three of the next five games and getting in for only two minutes in a fourth.

Then came that turning point against Cal, which Weaver followed up in fine fashion against UCLA (10 points, seven boards, four assists), USC (10 points, seven boards) and Oregon State (12 points).

Senior guard Thomas Kelati, WSU's leading scorer, is a fan.

"People might forget that he just came out of high school, and that it's such a big adjustment from high school to Division 1 and Pac-10 basketball," Kelati said. "He's grown more confident with every game. I think that's the biggest thing; he's more confident and he's getting a lot of minutes. The more minutes you play, you get more comfortable."

But just as he appeared to be settling into his new role, Weaver was sent back to the pine. Bennett said he was disappointed with the lineup WSU used in its loss to Washington on Jan. 23, and for the next game replaced Weaver with senior Chris Schlatter. In the four games that have followed, Weaver has played 10 minutes an outing, averaging more turnovers (1.5) than points (1.0).

"Starting isn't really that big of a deal to me," said the optimistic Weaver. "If I start I'll do what I can, and if I come off the bench I'll just do what I did against Cal."

Weaver is quick to remind that he's young and has three more years at WSU. He's already looking ahead to this offseason, when he can work on improving his game, especially his shooting (11 percent from the three-point arc).

"I definitely need to touch up on my shooting. I think I got away from that this year, but now I'm realizing that you need that. You have to be able to shoot at this level. Also, I'm gonna hit the weights real hard and come back stronger and faster."

And better-equipped to handle any roller-coaster rides that may come.

Each of WSU's next four games will be televised: Thursday's at Oregon State (5:30 p.m.) is on Fox Sports Northwest and Saturday's at Oregon (3 p.m.) will be on ABC regionally. The Cougars' next home outing, Feb. 19 vs. Washington at 4 p.m., will be on FSN, as will the Feb. 24 home date with Arizona (5:30 pm). This Saturday's game at Oregon will be WSU's first appearance on ABC since Feb. 24, 1996 at California.

With seven games left in the Pac-10 regular season, WSU (10-10 overall) is in a three-way tie for fifth place at 5-6 with Arizona State and California. The Cougars are a game out of third place which is shared by Stanford and UCLA. With a win at Oregon State on Thursday the Cougars would be at .500 this late in the conference season for the first time since 1995-96. A sweep of the Oregon schools would put WSU two games above .500 overall this late in a campaign for the first time since the 1995-96 Cougars finished 18-11 and advanced to the NIT second round.

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