Hoops tour Down Under: 2 Cougs feel the heat

PULLMAN -– Washington State's Thomas Abercrombie traveled more than 7,000 miles from home to play college basketball. And now, in an ironic twist -– aided mightily by a redshirt season last year –- the 6-6 forward from New Zealand anxiously finds himself a week away from making his first collegiate road trip . . . to Auckland.

One June 5, in the opening game of the Cougars' summer tour across the Pacific, Abercrombie will wear a Cougar jersey in a road game for the first time. It also will be just the second time he's donned a Cougar jersey in a game, having played in the Cougars' exhibition win over Central Washington last season.

The Cougars' 15-day, six-game trek starts against the New Zealand Breakers Academy and ends against the Marlins of Cairns -– the hometown of WSU's 6-10 Australian center, Aron Baynes.

The whole notion of playing in front of the home crowd leaves both of these Cougars nearly speechless.

"I can't wait," says Baynes.

"Very excited," says Abercrombie.

Neither imagined playing back home in a Cougar uniform. In fact, when the rumblings of a summer trip started making the rounds through the Bohler Gym Complex, Baynes and Abercrombie didn't even entertain the idea of flying west, because south and east tend to be the typical directions for these kinds of tours.

Unless, of course, your head coach is Tony Bennett, who spent four years playing and coaching in New Zealand in the 1990s before joining his dad's staff at Wisconsin.

Abercrombie and Baynes are thrilled with the prospects of seeing family and friends in the stands, but admit they're probably feeling a little more pressure than the rest of the team.

"You always want to perform well in front of your family and friends," says Baynes, adding that he'll also be facing off on the court with players he knows from his youth.

The junior-to-be says his loved ones have only seen him play in a Cougar uniform on the DVDs he sends them. He said his family spread word of the homecoming throughout the community, so he knows exactly how many family members and friends will be on hand for the game in Cairns.


Added Abercrombie: "Obviously, I want to play well. I want to make the most of the trip and show them (friends and family) that I've improved."

Abercrombie, widely considered one of the most complete players on the Cougar roster, figures to see plenty of action -- along with junior Caleb Forrest -- as Bennett looks to fill the minutes of last season's lone senior, Ivory Clark.

One of the highlights of the trip, says Baynes and Abercrombie, will be the June 7 match up in Canberra against the Australian National team, which includes Milwaukee Bucks forward Andrew Bogut and veteran international standout Sam Mackinnon, a defensive wizard who has tryouts scheduled this summer with the Cavaliers, Spurs and Raptors.

Baynes views that game and the entire tour –- all of it against highly physical professional and semi-professional teams –- as a good reality check before 2007-08 practices begin in mid-October.

• Baynes arrived at the workouts for the summer tour weighing a tidy 260 pounds. At the start of last season, when he was slowed by an ankle injury, he was tipping the scales at 290. Baynes says his lighter weight will help his game and confidently stated, "I haven't lost my strength."

• Cougar forward Nikola Koprivica, who is rehabbing a knee he blew against Oregon last season, will not travel with the team. Nor will incoming freshmen Fabian Boeke, Abe Lodwick and Stephen Sauls, who are not on yet on campus.

• In preparations for the trip Down Under, the Cougs are practicing with a 24-second shot clock. The team is also adjusting to the trapezoid-shaped key and a slightly longer three-point line that is found in international competition.

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