Hoops preview: Bennett inherits veteran squad

BASKETBALL PRACTICES ARE underway on the Palouse and first-year head coach Tony Bennett inherits a team from his retired father Dick that returns most of its firepower from 2005-06. Indeed, the Cougars welcome back players who last year accounted for 74 percent of the team's scoring, 83 percent of the rebounding, 84 percent of the starts, and 77 percent of the minutes played.

Among the top returnees are guard Kyle Weaver (6-6, 201) and forward Robbie Cowgill (6-10, 211), two juniors who dominated the stat sheet a year ago.

Weaver started 25 games last season and became the fourth Cougar in school history to have at least 100 rebounds (116) and 100 assists (107) in the same season. His assists and 39 steals were best among the Cougars and he anchors the backcourt along with point guard Derrick Low (6-1, 185). Low, the school career leader in free throw percentage (.836), missed eight games last season due to a fractured foot. He knocked down 36 percent of his 3-point shots last season.

Cowgill led Washington State with 33 blocks last season. His 1.32 per game average ranked sixth in the Pacific-10 and placed him ninth on the Cougar single season list. He was also 12th in the conference last season with a 5.1 rebounding average. He was named Pac-10 honorable mention and Pac-10 All-Academic first team.

Joining Cowgill in the front court are senior forward Ivory Clark (6-6, 220) and sophomore center Aron Baynes (6-10, 270). The duo combined for 23 starts last season and 44 blocked shots and should be counted on to provide the Cougars with an inside presence in 2006-07. Baynes looks to be fully recovered from off-season ankle surgery.

"Many of our players have quality Pac-10 experience. The strength of this team will be quality depth," Bennett said.

Much of the depth will come from junior center Chris Henry (6-8, 256), sophomore center Caleb Forrest (6-8, 228) and sophomore guard Chris Matthews (6-4, 207). The trio combined for 19 starts last season. As a true freshman last year, scored 61 points, with 51 of them coming from three-point range.

In addition, forward Daven Harmeling (6-7, 216) returns after missing all but the season opener last season with a shoulder injury. The Grand Junction, Colo., native subsequently was granted a medical hardship year, so remains a sophomore in eligibility.

THERE WILL BE SEVERAL new faces in uniform for the Cougars this season. Three are brand new and one partly new. Brand new to the team are JC transfer Mac Hopson, a 6-2 guard from Portland who spent last season at North Idaho College; Nikola Koprivica, a 6-6 guard from Belgrade, Serbia; and Thomas Abercrombie, a 6-6 guard from Auckland, New Zealand. The semi-new face is 6-1 guard Taylor Rochestie of Santa Barbara, Calif. He transferred to WSU a year ago from Tulane – where he was named Conference USA All-Freshman in 2005 -- but sat out the season per NCAA rules.

THE SCHEDULE INCLUDES 14 of 30 regular season games against teams that participated in 2006 postseason play. The Cougars open against Radford College of the Big South Conference and then take on 2006 NCAA Tournament teams Alabama-Birmingham and Wisconsin-Milwaukee at a tournament hosted by Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nov. 10-12.

"I'm excited to start my coaching career where I began my playing career," said Bennett, who starred in the Dairy State as a prepster and went on to attend Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The nonconference schedule also includes 2006 NCAA Tournament participants Gonzaga (Dec. 5 in Pullman) and San Diego State (Dec. 21 at KeyArena in Seattle).

The schedule marks the first time in school history the Cougars will play four games prior to Pac-10 play against teams which took part in the previous season's NCAA Tournament.

"We're pleased to have another high quality schedule," Bennett said. "It has been part of the plan here over the last three years to play a schedule that will prepare us for conference play and to have quality home games for our fans.

Other 2006 NCAA Tournament teams on this season's schedule include UCLA (away, Dec. 28/home, March 3), Arizona (home, Jan. 6/away, Feb. 1), California (away, Jan. 11/home, Feb. 10) and Washington (home, Jan. 20/away, Feb. 14). WSU will also play Stanford, which took part in the 2006 NIT, Jan. 13 at Stanford and Feb. 8 in Pullman.

2005-06 SEASON RECAP
Last season was filled with milestones, heartbreak losses and ultimately the retirement of head coach Dick Bennett and the hiring of his son Tony as his successor. The Cougars roared to a 7-2 nonconference record including a thrilling 58-57 win over Kansas State in Pullman, a 60-49 victory at eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State, and a 69-42 route of Utah at KeyArena in Seattle. WSU improved to 9-3 in the Pac-10 when it defeated No. 10 Washington 78-71 on the road, Jan. 7. The victory marked the first in school history on the road for the Cougars over a top 10 team.

Unfortunately, the next three games all resulted in close losses and WSU's season unraveled, though the Cougars did upset Washington one more time before all was said and done on an 11-17 season (4-14 in conference play).

Still, there were several milestones in 2005-06. The Cougars tied the school record for blocked shots in a season with 130; their four turnovers against Oregon State late in the season was the fewest by a WSU team in a single game since 1977. In addition, the Cougars led the Pac-10 in scoring defense (57.7 points per game), field goal percentage defense (38.9) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (29.9).

MARK YOUR CALENDARS

The second annual Cougar basketball coaches' dinner in Seattle is set for next Thursday, Oct. 26, at Salty's on Alki. Tony Bennett and women's head coach Sherri Murrell will be the featured speakers. All proceeds go to the student-athlete scholarship fund at WSU. The cost is $55 for Athletic Foundation members and $65 for non-members. To reserve your spot, contact Todd Thrasher at 206-448-1330 or thrasher@wsuwest.edu.

Bennett will be back in Seattle with the entire team on Dec. 21 for the second annual Cougar Hardwood Classic at Key Arena. Tip off is at 7:30 pm. The Cougs will take on defending Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State. Click to www.cougarsinseattle.com for more details and to order tickets.

NOTABLE NOTES:
• Home attendance for Cougar basketball has increased 26 percent over the last three seasons.
• In an effort to put on more weight, Cowgill has been consuming a steady flow of protein shakes -- a whopping 6,000 calories per day.
• Senior guard Antonio Chavers, who saw action in 25 games last season after transferring from Tyler (Texas) JC, will not be academically eligible to play for the Cougars until January.
• The Cougars will host Central Washington University in an exhibition match at Friel Court, Sunday, Nov. 5. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. and admission is free.
• Rodney Edgerson, the promising JC transfer whose first year with the Cougs was ruined by a stress fracture in his back, will play this season for Division II Kentucky Wesleyan. Josh Akognon, last year's leading Cougar scorer, has transferred to Cal State-Fullerton in search of a faster-tempo offense. And Steve Campbell, a walk-on guard from Inglemoor High, will not return in 2006-07.
• The Cougars last week secured a verbal commitment from Bend, Oregon, sharpshooter Abe Lodwick. The versatile 6-7 wing, who can play the 2 or 3 spot, is a senior at Mountain View High. He choose WSU over offers from Oregon, New Mexico, Northwestern and others.

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