Cougar hoops preview: Big load for backcourt

PULLMAN -- Spend an hour watching college basketball and odds are you'll hear the adage that life and death is determined in the backcourt. The recent evidence is compelling. Star Pac-10 big men like Ike Diogu and Leon Powe have enjoyed only mediocre seasons because of poor backcourt support. For an up-and-coming Washington State team, guard play will go a long way toward determining whether the Cougs can improve on last season's 12-16 record. Today we break down WSU's 2005-06 backcourt.

Gone from last season are Thomas Kelati, Isaiah Simmons and Alex Kirk. Kelati, an All-Pac-10 performer, was WSU's leading scorer (14.3 points per game), most reliable shooter and best overall defender. After spending some time with the Los Angeles Clippers' summer league team, he is now playing professionally in Belgium. Simmons was a valuable role player, a solidly built guard/forward who earned the nickname "Work Hard" from teammates for his efforts on the court and in the weight room. Simmons' numbers weren't outstanding, but he was one of the team's best decision-makers, and could step in and defend anyone from point guards to power forwards when needed. Kirk was mostly a practice player.

Without Kelati and Simmons, head coach Dick Bennett says, this year's WSU backcourt is short on maturity, but has experience for such a young group.

"All four of the top guys have played," Bennett said. "They're not as physically mature, but they do have experience. This year they're going to play a huge role, because we're not ready to dominate anyone inside; we haven't been since I've been here."

WSU's top returner in the backcourt is sophomore point guard Derrick Low. After ruling the high school scene in Hawaii and building a strong recruiting buzz, Low missed WSU's first six games with a broken foot last year, but assumed the starting job upon returning, averaging 7 points and 2.8 assists in 32 minutes a game. In practices this year, Low has shown the passing ability, court vision and leadership that made him Bennett's prize recruit one year ago. He also is showing an improved three-point shot.

"Derrick has shown the most assertiveness," Bennett said when asked about his guards. "He still has a ways to go, but he's improved in the important areas that are going to make a difference."

Most likely starting alongside Low will be sophomore Josh Akognon. Sporting the frame of a point guard (5-foot-10) but the game of a two-guard, Akognon was used for instant offense off the bench in his rookie campaign. In fact, it was Akognon whom Bennett trusted to take the final shot in a last-second loss to Gonzaga in December. Akognon missed it from way out, but it won't be the last time he takes a big shot for the Cougars. By improving his defense and mid-range game over the summer, Akognon will shake the label that he's just a long-range gunner.

Starting on the wing, says Bennett, will be sophomore Kyle Weaver. As the most versatile player on the Cougars, Weaver spent time at point guard, shooting guard and small forward last year. And he will probably do the same this season. After putting a few pounds of muscle onto his slight frame, Weaver is up to about 190 pounds. He said he worked on his jump shot in the offseason, which often failed him last year (38 percent from the field, 9 percent from three-point range).

Of the young trio he's formed with Low and Akognon, Weaver says, "We're gelling. Slowly but surely we're coming together, but I know a little game experience will make the process speed up."

The first guard off the bench will be Randy Green, the only senior on the team. As a defensive stopper and overall crowd energizer last year, Green received high praise from veterans like Kelati about his untapped potential. Thrust into a leadership role this season, Green has embraced his responsibility.

"I try to lead by example," said Green. "Some of these guys don't know things like how long the season is or how hard you have to work, so I try to stay on top of them."

Green spent the offseason working on his offensive game, and in practices has been carrying himself with more confidence on both ends of the court. A Seattle native, Green went back home and played pickup ball with Seattle Supersonics Ray Allen, Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison, high school teammates Nate Robinson (New York Knicks), Lodrick Stewart (USC) and Rodrick Stewart (Kansas), Husky point guard Ryan Appleby, and future Husky recruit Spencer Hawes, among others. JC transfer Antonio Chavers and freshmen Chris Matthews and Steve Campbell, will also get time in the backcourt, as will versatile JC transfer Rodney Edgerson, who also can play down low. Chavers is perhaps the best athlete on the team, winning the team's unofficial dunk contest a couple weeks ago. Matthews is a great shooter and solid defender, but runs into trouble in one-on-one situations. Campbell can shoot and works hard. Edgerson is out with a shoulder injury and can score when healthy (24 points per game at Illinois Central College).

"We're all talented offensively, but we have to build chemistry on defense. Everybody in the Pac-10 has good guards, so we have to play together on defense for us to be effective," Green said of the Cougars' backcourt. "That's the strength of our team, the guards. Not taking anything away from the big men, because we have some great big men, but we're only going to go as far as our guards take us."

NOTABLE:

* Another new face on the team this year is 6-2, 210-pound Jeremy Cross, a walk-on transfer from the University of Puget Sound who is redshirting this season. Last year he led the Loggers with 16.2 points per game. He's also a solid rebounder, pulling down 214 in his two seasons at UPS. He was named national Division 3 Player of the Week last December after a three-game stretch in which he scored 89 points. Cross is strong, smart and the only true point guard on the team aside from Low. He was an All-CIF performer as a senior at Rancho Buena Vista High outside San Diego.

* Thomas Abercrombie, who verbally committed over the summer to play his college basketball at WSU, this week signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Cougars. A native of Devonport, Auckland, New Zealand, Abercrombie is a 6-foot-5, 185-pound wing playing at Westlake Boys High. He is a two-year captain for the Swans and has averaged over 19 points and 11 rebounds combined during the last two seasons. * The Cougars open the season with a home exhibition against Lewis-Clark State on Nov. 15. The campaign begins in earnest on Nov. 19, at home, against UC-Riverside and in Spokane, on Nov. 22, against BYU. The Cougars open Pac-10 play Dec. 29 against Arizona in Spokane and Dec. 31 vs. ASU in Pullman.

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