Bennett likes depth of next season's Cougs

WSU HOOPS COACH Tony Bennett was his usual low-key self in a recent interview on KJR-AM in Seattle, but you couldn't come away from the visit without drawing one conclusion: Next season's Cougs will be better than this year's Cinderella squad. Six of the top seven players return, but newfound depth -– led by second-year freshman Thomas Abercrombie -– is what really could set this team part.

Abercrombie, a 6-6, 190-pound forward who redshirted last season, "is going to surprise some people," Bennett told KJR's Ian Furness last Thursday night.

He said the agile New Zealander has a long wingspan and is physically stronger and better defensively than when he arrived in Pullman. And he's had a year to adjust to the speed of the college game, which tends to be a challenge for players from overseas.

"People will enjoy watching him ... a lot of the guys in our program think that when all is said and done, he could be one of the best we've had through here," Bennett said.

Abercrombie is a gamer around the rim, but also has good range and can knock down shots from outside.

And so can two newcomers to the team -– 6-10, 230-pound center/forward Fabian Boeke of Hamberg, Germany, and 6-7, 185-pound forward Abe Lodwick of Bend, Oregon.

Bennett said Lodwick, a lefthander, has a "beautiful stroke." Scout.com recruiting analyst Greg Hicks calls Lodwick "one of the best-kept secrets" in the West.

Boeke is a highly skilled offensive player with an excellent three-point shot. He's 20 years old, so brings extra maturity to the court, too, Bennett said.

Bottom line, the coach said, "we've upgraded our shooting."


GUARD STEPHEN SAULS

Another newcomer who will have a chance at playing time is Stephen Sauls Jr., a 6-3, 195-pound guard from Houston and a one-time commit to the Air Force Academy. Bennett calls him an "athletic, real sound" point/combo-type who will fill the void left by the transfers of backups Mac Hopson and Chris Matthews. Hopson is headed to Idaho and Matthews to St. Bonaventure in New York. Both left in search of more playing time, and Matthews, from Washington, D.C., wanted to be closer to home as well.

Boeke, Lodwick and Sauls, says Bennett, are true freshmen coming into a program with a lot of experienced talent, so the minutes for them this season will be measured – "but they'll be able to develop nicely."

BENNETT, THE CONSENSUS National Coach of the Year, said Cougars' new-found success has opened more doors along the recruiting trail but cautioned that it "doesn't mean a whole lot until you see the doors opened with signatures on paper." He said he and his staff are working now on both the 2008 and 2009 classes.

With Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, Kyle Weaver and Chris Henry all entering their senior seasons, the 2008 class figures to be a sizeable one for the Cougs.

While Bennett can't talk about prospects until they've signed, it is known that he's secured at least one verbal commitment in the class: 6-3 shooting guard Nick Witherill of Scottsdale, Ariz., who pledged his crimson allegiance nearly a year ago. As a junior this past season, he led his school to a 24-6 record and the Class 4A-I state semifinals. He averaged nearly 20 points per game.


COWGILL, HARMELING SWARMED: Win over Zags was big boost.

ASKED AT WHAT POINT during the Cougs' magical, 26-win 2006-07 season the team realized they had turned the corner, Bennett said the beauty of the club was that they never felt like they'd turned the corner, playing with the notion of something to prove every night. He did concede that the early win over Gonzaga in a packed Beasley Coliseum was a big confidence booster, as was the overtime win over Arizona at the start of January.

THE COUGARS WILL GET in 10 official practices between now and their departure June 2 for a series of exhibition games against professional teams in New Zealand and Australia. Colleges are allowed to do such overseas tours once every four years, and Bennett says the experience -- especially against mature, seasoned professionals -- will give the Cougars a great jump-start on the 2007-08 season.

NOTABLE NOTES:

* It doesn't sound like there will be a homecoming for Cougar guard, and Honolulu native, Derrick Low this season. University of Hawaii head coach Bob Nash was quoted in the Honolulu Advertiser on Sunday saying he offered the Cougars a spot in the Rainbow Classic, or a chance at a single game. "I want it known that we at the University of Hawai'i made the offer and made some concessions to try and get Washington State here and they have not accepted. We wanted to bring Derrick Low back and create a showcase game, but we have to move on to something else now," he said.

* Bennett will be on hand for the King County Cougar Golf Classic, co-sponsored by CF.C, at the Newcastle Golf Club on May 31. Single slots are still available for the golf tourney, but the dinner banquet that evening has plenty of room remaining. Bill Doba and other coaches also will be attending. Registration and social hour begin at 5:30 p.m. For more information, call Michelle Primley at WSU West, 206/448-1330.

* New WSU women's hoops coach June Daugherty rounded out her coaching staff last week with a splash, hiring Maurice "Mo" Hines, a highly regarded Seattle-area AAU coach who figures to supercharge WSU's recruiting efforts in the state. He's connected, respected and energetic. Hines is currently the head coach of the Emerald City Legends Elite girls basketball team. Daugherty's staff also includes her husband Mike, former Montana Tech head coach Brian Holsinger, and basketball operations director Kate Werner (a Pullman High grad and long-time Daugherty colleague at Washington).

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