Cougar hoops roundup: Low back, hopes high

PULLMAN – Just when it appeared that post-season hopes were all but done after six consecutive narrow losses, the outlook around Friel Court is suddenly brighter. First there was the Cougs' upset of No. 16 Washington on Saturday and now comes news that starting point guard Derrick Low, out for the last eight games with a broken foot, could be back in limited action this week and full-time duty next week. Bottom line, the Cougars have a new-found opportunity to make a late run at the postseason.

Also going the Cougars' way is the progress of rookies Ivory Clark, a 6-5 forward, and Aron Baynes, a 6-11 center. Last Saturday the pair put an exclamation point on their increasing productivity over recent weeks. The Cougars shut down the Huskies in the second half and fed off of the energy of the two newcomers in a 77-64 win. Clark was all over the court during an 11-0 second-half run and Baynes dominated the middle with 13 points and 12 rebounds.

Tonight the Cougars face No. 13 UCLA (5:30 pm), then play USC on Saturday at 3 pm. Both games are at home and both will be televised live on FSN. WSU head coach Dick Bennett is impressed with the Bruins, owners of the best record in the Pac-10 and two-point win over WSU last month.

"They run such great offense. They're very precise," Bennett said. "They have a tremendous floor leader (sophomore point guard Jordan Farmar) to set that offense up and make it go. There's a reason they're in first place; it's because they're very good."

The Bruins are 19-4 overall and 9-2 in Pac-10 play. The Cougars are 10-9 and 3-7.

UCLA has exceeded expectations this year, overcoming injuries and a young lineup. Farmar and fellow sophomore Arron Afflalo have carried the load so far, but as Bennett pointed out in his weekly press conference, there is still a long way to go in conference play, and teams like Stanford and Cal are surging.

USC (15-7 overall, 6-5 conference) limps into Pullman without perhaps its best player, sophomore guard Gabriel Pruitt, who broke a bone in his knee and will miss at least three weeks. The Trojans still have Nick Young, who scored 34 points in USC's five-point win over WSU last month, and Seattle product Lodrick Stewart in the backcourt.

ONE PLAYER WHO COULD make a difference for the Cougars this week is Low. The sophomore from Honolulu was cleared to return to practice this week. Bennett said there's a slight possibility Low could see limited action against the L.A. schools, but will definitely be back full-time next week for WSU's Oregon road trip. On Wednesday, Low practiced for a limited amount of time, but looked to be in good shape.

In the meantime, WSU will continue to rely on contributions from former benchwarmers like Baynes and freshman Chris Matthews. Making his first start of the season against the Huskies, Matthews scored 13 points -- including a couple of clutch three-pointers in the second half -- and gave WSU another perimeter scoring option next to sophomore Josh Akognon. The 6-foot-3 freshman from Washington, D.C., should start against UCLA, according to Bennett.

"Chris has improved enough on defense to where I felt we could use him," Bennett said. "I knew people would be on Josh, so I wanted to get another option to score from a perimeter player."

Clark, who hyperextended his elbow against UW but only left the game for a few minutes, should be okay to play this week despite some soreness. Junior guard Rodney Edgerson continues to sit out with a back injury.

AFTER BEATING THE UW in January, WSU went on a six-game skid. After Saturday's win, there isn't much reason to believe the Cougars will go into the tank again.

"While we did lose six in a row, it isn't like we played terribly," Bennett said. "We were in each of those games until the last minute or so. We have shown improvement. Perhaps it just all came together on Saturday."

If WSU is to avoid another post-UW collapse, Bennett says they have to play better in the first half of games.

"We seem like a different team in the first half. I would like to not have such an unpleasant halftime every week," Bennett said. "Anything would be an improvement from how we've been playing. It's been a nightmare.

"You do need an aggressive leader on the court early on and that's the area where we're shy. We don't have that person," he added.

Some would look upon Randy Green to be that person. As the only senior on the roster, Green is a defensive sparkplug who has the respect of his teammates. However, Green isn't physically on the court enough to be the kind of leader Bennett desires. Against UW, for example, he played only 11 minutes, most of that in the second half. With Low coming back soon, Green's playing time could decrease even more.

"I'm generally comfortable with Randy late in the game because he makes his free throws and he handles the ball well," Bennett said. "With Josh shooting so well and Matthews coming on, that has affected Randy's time because both of those guys are capable of scoring points, and we need that. Going to a bigger lineup in the second half also hurts [Green]."

While it has rained in Pullman this week, Bennett found himself soaked for another reason. During Monday's practice, Bennett slipped up and used a profanity. For that he allowed the team managers to dump him with buckets of water after the session.

"When the kids swear, they have to run. When I swear, I expect to be punished, but I can't run anymore and I can't do pushups," said the 60-year-old Bennett, citing hip and back problems. "So they dumped me with water. I was soaked head-to-toe."

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