Cougar hoops: Previewing the frontcourt

PULLMAN -- The biggest of the big dogs have left the Pac-10 yard. Namely, Arizona State power forward Ike Diogu, Arizona center Channing Frye and Oregon State forward David Lucas. In those players' absences, the conference is devoid of star power in the frontcourt positions, save Cal's Leon Powe. That said, does Washington State have the talent down low to move up the ladder and improve on last season's 12-16 record (7-11 in the Pac-10)? We break down the Cougars' 2005-06 frontcourt.

Gone from last season are forwards Jeff Varem, Chris Schlatter and Shami Gill. Although undersized as a power forward, Varem was the Cougars' only real low-post threat, and finished his senior year as the team's second-leading scorer (10.5 points per game) and top rebounder (7.8 boards).

After playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers' summer league team, Varem is now playing pro ball in France. Schlatter hit some big shots late last season and was the primary starter at small forward. He is playing professionally in Luxembourg. Gill could defend, rebound and set screens to free up shooters, but was lost early last season to a career-ending back injury.

WSU's top returning big man, then, is 6-foot-10 sophomore center Robbie Cowgill, who averaged 6 points and 3.4 rebounds as a freshman, along with blocking a team-high 27 shots. Despite having only 28 games (19 starts) under his belt, Cowgill is the team's most experienced big man. The lanky Texan is up to 207 pounds after putting on about 10 pounds in the offseason, but will miss at least three weeks with a broken collarbone suffered in late-October. When he returns, expect Cowgill to immediately assume a starting role.

"Without Robbie, the experience factor is clearly a negative," said head coach Dick Bennett. "None of the others have much experience at all. I'll feel better when Robbie gets back, because we'll have some legitimate depth."

While Cowgill recovers, freshman Aron Baynes will most likely start in the middle. Baynes is a solid 6-foot-10 and 247 pounds, and while his shooting is poor, he is physical, can pass out of the post, and can score close to the basket. Baynes comes to WSU from Australia, where he trained at the same sports institute as ex-Utah star Andrew Bogut, the top pick in last summer's NBA draft.

"Aron is very strong. He's learning and adapting to how we'll play, which is good because we're going to need him," Bennett said.

Another newcomer who could start right away is forward Ivory Clark. A junior college transfer, Clark is like a poor man's Varem. At 6-foot-5 he is short for the power forward position, but is muscular and athletic enough to compensate. In Friday's practice, he pulled off two outstanding plays: an up-and-under layup that was Kobe Bryant-esque, and a one-handed dunk in traffic. Clark has trouble catching the ball, passing out of double-teams and shooting outside the paint, and sometimes plays out of control, but Bennett likes his positives.

"Ivory hustles. I'd say he has the lead as far as starting right now," Bennett said.

Sophomore Daven Harmeling was also mentioned as a potential starter by Bennett. A 6-foot-7 small forward with shooting range, Harmeling averaged 13 minutes a game last season, and had his best game when he scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds off the bench against Oregon State on Feb. 10. He should play a lot more in his second year.

Another sophomore who could contribute is center Chris Henry. The 6-foot-8 alum of legendary Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., played sparingly last season -- partially due to injuries -- and has already missed time with knee and back problems this year.

Rounding out the new recruiting class is Caleb Forrest, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Colorado. Forrest's strength is shooting. He is automatic from the baseline, and uses the backboard on his jumpers from the elbow, a la Tim Duncan. But Forrest is slightly built, at 202 pounds.

Ryan Bailey and Arlen Plaister are walk-ons who may or may not stick with the team once the season starts.

When asked to evaluate the front line, Bennett sounds like a coach who doesn't expect too much from this inexperienced group.

"Their effort level has been excellent," Bennett said. "They're all making progress."

And every man on the front line should benefit from the instruction of team manager Mark Vershaw, an unofficial assistant coach and big man tutor. Vershaw was the leading scorer (11.8 points per game) on Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four team, which was coached by Bennett. He has a plethora of low-post moves and, if that fails, also knows all the dirty tricks to give the Cougars young big men an edge.

COMING NEXT: The Cougars' backcourt.

Cougfan Top Stories