The Cougars' "Big Six" of Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes, Taylor Rochestie and Daven Harmeling is pushed hard in practice by a group of guys who collectively played one minute (courtesy of Sauls) in the Baylor and Gonzaga games.
Their commitment in practice is making the team tangibly better on game days, Johnson said.
Besides Sauls, Abercrombie and Lodwick, the behind-the-scenes team includes Charlie Enquist, Jeremy Cross, Fabian Boeke and Chris Henry.
Guard Nikola Koprivica and forward Caleb Forrest are two players you might consider the middle men of the team. They're not scout team mainstays and they're not prime-time performers. They're the seventh and eighth guys in the rotation, averaging 12 and 10 minutes per game, respectively.
As for the youngsters on the scout team, Johnson said the coaching staff is pleased with their development. "They're all improving and all of them have had their moments in practice. It's about getting stronger in the weight room and improving ball skills," he said. "They're all tremendously hard workers."
Abercrombie, a second-year freshman, is a highly athletic 6-6 swingman with sound defensive skills. Heading into this season, some observers pegged him to pick up some of Ivory Clark's old minutes. So far, he's played in just three of the Cougars' eight games, averaging 11 minutes of playing time.
"Thomas is doing a great job in practice, prepping ‘the usual suspects' to play. He's continuing to work hard while waiting for his opportunity," Johnson said, noting that Abercrombie's practice performance before the Baylor and Gonzaga games was key to getting Weaver & Co. ready for those high-intensity road contests.
Of the true freshmen, Enquist, a 6-10 center/forward from Seattle, is redshirting this season. Boeke, a 6-11 forward from Germany, is practicing everyday but can't play in games pending an eligibility appeal with the NCAA. Lodwick hasn't played in a game this season, leaving open the possibility of a redshirt season, but the staff hasn't foreclosed the notion of him contributing this year. Last season, Koprivica was in a similar position. He didn't play in the first six games of the season and then came on like gangbusters until blowing a knee midway through the Pac-10 portion of the schedule.
JOHNSON SAID THE the high-volume, high-energy experience at Gonzaga on Wednesday made for "a great game to be involved with – you felt the excitement and the uncertainty of where it would end made it better.
Coming in to the game, the Zags had lost only one game in the 42 played at the McCarthy Center since its opening three years ago.
"It's a hostile environment and our kids were really resilient and strong," Johnson said. "It was a special night, a good statement on the confidence and focus our players have."
The Cougs shot the ball well in the first half but went cold in the second. The fact the Cougs still won illustrates the beauty of playing tough defense, Johnson said. "Sound defense keeps you in games when you're not shooting well and gives you a chance to win."
The 47 points Gonzaga scored marked the Zags' lowest output in 11 years and their 26 percent accuracy from the field was their worst since an NCAA tournament game in 2002.
RIGHT NOW THE COUGARS are relying mostly on a six-man rotation. Rochestie, Low, Weaver and Cowgill are each averaging between 28 and 33 minutes per game, while Baynes (hampered on occasion by foul trouble) is at 20 minutes per outing and Harmeling at 23.5.
Forrest, Koprivica, Sauls and to a lesser extent Cross fill in around them. Who plays when is dictated by the ebb and flow of each game. If size is needed, the 6-8 Forrest is called on. If guard play is needed, Koprivica is the one. If containment on D and the need to heat up pressure on the ball are sought, Sauls and Cross are tabbed.
Johnson said Sauls, who came to WSU from the Air Force Academy's prep school, should see his role expand as the season progresses, giving Low and Rochestie quick breathers while playing stellar defense. "He's gaining valuable experience everyday in practice guarding Kyle, Low and Taylor."
'OL BLOOD AND GUTS: ARON BAYNES
• The cut Baynes sustained above his eye against Gonzaga is a big hit with the big man, said Johnson. The rugged countenance is getting attention. "It makes him look more Aussie than usual."
• Rochestie and Low, under the watchful eye of strength coach David Lang, went after the weight room with a vengeance over the off-season, each adding about 10 pounds of muscle. "They're quicker, stronger and more durable," says Johnson.
• Weaver is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc this season. That's more than double his career accuracy from three-point land. Johnson said Weaver spent a lot of time in the off-season working on his stroke. The improvement was illustrated late in the Gonzaga game when Weaver canned a long ball – from just inside the arc – off the dribble.
• A long-time season Gonzaga season-ticketholder told CF.C the rabid Zag crowd the other night had a different tone than they did for the Huskies last season. "Against the Dawgs, it was pure hostility bordering on hate. For the Cougs, it was more like school spirit gone wild. Both games have to rank as the two loudest in G.U. history."