Hoops: Underdog role suits Derrick Low just fine

<b>Pullman -- In seemingly a lifetime ago back when he was in high school, Derrick Low lost basketball games about as often as a Christmas holiday rolls around. Honolulu's Iolani School averaged one loss a year over his prep career, posting a 101-4 record against in-state competition and winning three state championships in four years. But in spite of that success, Low knows what it's like to be the underdog. It's a knowledge that's helped him in his freshman season at Washington State.

Low was Hawaii's "Mr. Basketball" (bestowed upon the state's top player) three straight years and the Interscholastic League of Honolulu Player of the Year all four varsity seasons at Iolani, the first freshman in Hawaii history to win the award. In between dominating the Hawaii prep scene, Low spent his summers with the Hawaii Warriors AAU team, going up against some of the elite teams in the country. It was then that Low went from hunted to hunter.

In numerous AAU tournaments on the mainland, Low's team played spoiler rather than favorite.

"I could see it in the other team's eyes," Low recalls. "They'd see us walk onto the court and be like, ‘These guys are from Hawaii? We're gonna kill ‘em!'" But he also remembers leaving those tournaments with a handful of upset victories and a boatload of newfound respect.

AT WSU THIS season, Low is once again the underdog.

And while the Cougars (10-12 overall, 5-8 in the Pac-10) have pulled a few rabbits out of their hat -- most notably its historic upset of No. 11 Arizona on Jan. 29 – losing three times as many games in a season of college than he lost in four years of high school is unfamiliar territory for Low.

Low say he's handling the losing as well as he can, though. He knew it might be like this when he committed to play at WSU last year.

"We all wanted to be part of a program on the rise," Low said of he and WSU's six other true freshmen. "Washington State wasn't a top-notch program like Washington or Oregon -- but we knew could be part of something we could help build."

AFTER MISSING THE first seven weeks of the season with a broken foot injured in a pre-season practice, Low has started 16 of the 17 games he's appeared in, averaging 6.9 points, 2.9 assists and 1.2 steals. In a loss to Oregon last Saturday, he notched a career-high 19 points. His 31.4 minutes per game are second on the team to senior guard and leading scorer Thomas Kelati.

"A lot of kids couldn't have come back from an injury that quickly, but he's mature physically for a freshman," WSU head coach Dick Bennett said. "He's been coming on a little bit each week. I think he had his best game yet against Oregon. Not just scoring, but across the board."

He also wasn't too shabby against Arizona either.

Low was perfect from beyond the arc against the Wildcats, scoring a then career high 13 points on 4-4 shooting from three-point land. But along with Thomas Kelati's superb performance (27 points) it was Low's floor generalship that stood out for assistant head coach Tony Bennett, noting that the freshman was coming of age midway through his first season.

DICK BENNETT, however, notes that Low needs to take charge more. Bennett's biggest gripe with his freshman point guard is Low's lack of assertiveness on the court.

"He leads by example, but he needs to be a little more vocal," Kelati said. "Derrick is one of the coolest dudes I know. He's so laid-back. Maybe it's him being from Hawaii.."

Bennett has coached on the high school and college level for more than 35 years, and says Low doesn't have to change his personality in order to be a better floor general.

"You don't have to be a real verbal leader," Bennett said. "Some of the best point guards I've had have been quiet people, but there was no question what they wanted from their teammates on the floor."

WITH FIVE GAMES remaining, including Saturday's home contest against the rival Huskies, WSU's Pac-10 tourney bid is hanging in the balance. In the familiar role as likely underdogs in most of the remaining games, Low and his teammates remain dead set on claiming a spot in the conference tournament and then making a run at the NIT or NCAA tournament.

"Above any individual goals for myself, I want the team success," Low said. "I want us to finish as strong as possible and reach our postseason goals. That's the only thing I'm worried about."

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