WSU hoops: Foundation in place, time to build

ROB OVIATT, legendary for his work as strength and conditioning coach for the WSU football team, may have to share the limelight with his counterpart in basketball, Dave Lang. Based on the development of some of head coach Tony Bennett's young players, Lang too is a wizard of the weight room. For proof, take a look at center Aron Baynes. The 6-10 sophomore has put on 25 pounds since last season.

He now tips the scales at 270 solid, solid pounds. Bennett likens him to a "brick wall."

Meanwhile, 6-8 sophomore forward Caleb Forrest, who arrived on campus a year ago at 202, is now at 228. And the biggest work in progress, 6-10 junior Robbie Cowgill, has packed on 33 pounds of muscle since getting to Pullman in 2004, going from 178 to 211.

"Dave has done an incredible job getting our kids stronger," Bennett told Cougfan.com late last week. "Everyone on the team has made significant jumps. We put even greater emphasis over the spring, summer and fall on strength and conditioning. The result is that we are functionally stronger. The training is sport specific, so our guys aren't going to look like body builders but they are noticeably stronger."

ON THE BASKETBALL COURT itself, Bennett has 525 pounds of post presence temporarily on the sidelines recovering from injuries, but the first-year head coach has no heavy worries about his team's depth.

"We don't have a first-team All-American, but we can go nine or 10 deep," he said. "Our strength is the quality of our depth. The competition at every position is better than at any time since I've been here."

That's especially true at point guard, where the Cougars have two-year starter Derrick Low (6-2, 186), Tulane transfer Taylor Rochestie (6-1, 186) and JC transfer Mac Hopson (6-1, 178).

Low and Rochestie are classic combo guards, able to play the one or two spot, and Hopson is a pure point man.

"We've got three guys – almost four, with Kyle Weaver available in a pinch – who play the point. This gives us tremendous flexibility. At times we'll play with two scoring point guards," Bennett said. "When you look at what we do, our ones, twos and threes all have to handle the ball, shoot, pass and make decisions.

To a very real degree, the point position will be by committee, Bennett said. Low's experience, however, would likely put him in position to start.

Another guard -- a two guard -- who figures in the Cougars' plans this season is sophomore Chris Matthews, 6-4, 207-pound sharpshooter from Washington, D.C. He'll be counted on to fill some of the long-range breach left by Josh Akognon, who now is at Cal State-Fullerton.

In addition, the Cougars have two freshmen guards vying for time in Thomas Abercrombie (6-6, 191) and Nikola Koprivica (6-6, 211), as well as second-year walk on Jeremy Cross (6-2, 207). Senior Antonio Chavers (6-2, 200), who started seven games last season, is on track to join the team when academic hurdles are cleared in January.

Bennett calls Abercrombie, a New Zealander, and Koprivica, from Serbia, "two solid freshmen wings." Abercrombie is long armed and savvy, Koprivica an excellent outside shooter. Bennett said the coming weeks will determine whether either of them redshirts or joins the rotation. Bennett characterizes Cross, a former University of Puget Sound standout, as "our fiercest defender – a very hard-nosed player who has made a mark here."

WEAVER, A 6-FOOT-5, 201-pound wing, and Cowgill, a post man, figure to be locks for the starting lineup. Each was at or near the top of most of the Cougars' statistical categories last season.

"It's too early to say who our top five players are, but given their experience, Derrick, Kyle and Robbie would be expected to hold the fort, at least initially," Bennett said.


BAYNES HELPS HAMMER HUSKIES.

At center, the Cougars have two big and experienced athletes in Baynes and junior Chris Henry (6-8, 256). Both are a ways from competing. Baynes, recovering from ankle surgery, is three to five weeks from full strength and Henry, who badly sprained an ankle last month, is about two weeks from going full tilt.

"Aron is right on track," Bennett said. "He's going to be OK, but he's been off that ankle for 10 or 12 weeks so we have to slowly bring it back to bearing weight. And there's a lot of weight there to support – Aron attacked the weight room in the off-season. He's like a brick wall – very strong."

As a true freshman last season, Baynes came on strong for the Cougars, playing in all 28 games and starting 12 down the stretch. He ended the year as one of the most prolific freshmen in Cougar history, pulling down 116 rebounds and blocking 13 shots. He also averaged 5.2 points per game while playing an average of 16.5 minutes per contest. The Cougars' depth in the post is considerable even without Baynes and Henry. There's Cowgill, Forrest, senior Ivory Clark (6-6, 220), who started 11 games last season, and sophomore Daven Harmeling (6-7, 216), a team leader who is healthy after missing last year with a shoulder injury. As a true freshman in 2004-05, Harmeling played in 26 games. Forrest, a true freshman last season, saw action in 24 games and started five of them.

THE COUGARS ARE YOUNG, yet experienced, returning players who last year accounted for 77 percent of the minutes played and more than 80 percent of the starts.

"We're not quite a veteran team, with only one scholarship senior (Clark) on the roster. We are a middle-aged team, though," said Bennett, who was a Cougar assistant for three years before his father Dick passed the reigns to him at the conclusion of last season.

"Our young people have legitimate Pac-10 experience. At times last year they had their ears pinned back. At other moments they played competitively and at times they won. We're not at the point where we can expect to hang a banner from the ceiling that says Pac-10 champion but the program is in a good spot. We've got the foundation down – now we can start building up."

NOTABLE NOTES:
• The second annual Cougar basketball coaches' dinner in Seattle is set for this 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

• 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.

• The regular season begins in Milwaukee, Nov. 10-12, at the John Thompson Classic, where the Cougars will face Alabama-Birmingham, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Radford. The home season starts Nov. 17 against Texas-San Antonio.

• The Cougars will be in Seattle 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.

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