Cougar hoops round up: Hills to climb

THE OLD BROMIDE is that the jump from high school ball to college is as severe as the move from college ball to the pros. But one wonders if Tony Bennett's incoming class of freshmen realizes just how steep their climb is going to be. Because when basketball conditioning commences with the start of school in August, one of the first stops on the itinerary will be the slope at Sunnyside Park.

To call the incline daunting is an understatement. It's the biggest, baddest hill in Pullman. Naming the place Sunnyside is the ultimate oxymoron.

When a WSU staffer was asked to describe this geographic killer, there was a pause and then this: "Boy ... a hundred yards of ... steep. It's almost straight up."

And in August, it's a hot and dirty steep.

The sprint up is physically challenging. More than one Cougar hooper over the years has lost his lunch at the top. But it's also mentally taxing.

Bennett and his coaches make it a routine part of the team's early conditioning regimen. The target is to go up and down in 90 seconds. On the first visit, it's five trips to the top. By the time regular basketball practices start in mid-October, it's 15 or more per session.

In 2006, in the weeks leading up to what would be the Cougars' first magical run to 26 wins, the slope gave Bennett a glimpse of his team's future. One player was spent, near the quitting point, with two sprints remaining. Though all his teammates had finished their sets, each of his fellow Cougars came to his side at the bottom of the hill and sprinted the final two hills with him, encouraging him to keep going.

"To me, that's a sign that the players aren't worried only about themselves -- they're worried about succeeding as a team," Bennett said at the time.

Prophetic really.

That year, you may recall, the Cougars were widely predicted to finish dead last in the Pac-10, and instead wound up No. 12 in the nation.

With Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low off to the pro ranks, the pundits are back to modest expectations for the Cougs. Not dead-last kind of modest. But there's been nary a 2008-09 pre-season top 25 list that has come out with WSU's name on it.

That probably suits Bennett just fine. He loves the role of the underdog and does everything he can to instill in his players the need to work harder, to want it more.

And while a slide back from the 26 wins the Cougars compiled in each of the last two seasons seems only reasonable, word out of Pullman is that Bennett and his staff don't envision a notable fall off in 2008-09.

The early part of the schedule figures to produce some hiccups as the freshmen integrate into the system and returning players shoulder heavier loads. As roles are understood and key program principals –- stellar transition defense and ball care on offense -– are adhered to, there's no reason why the Cougars can't return to the post-season.


Seniors Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Daven Harmeling provide a tried-and-true nucleus around which to build, both in terms of skills and leadership. Caleb Forrest and Nic Koprivica could be ready for breakout-type seasons and sharpshooting Abe Lodwick, a redshirt last season, looks poised to assume many of Low's minutes. Six-foot-11 Fabian Boeke, who sat out last season with a bad back and an NCAA eligibility snafu, offers intrigue in the post.

And then there's the much-touted class of freshmen. One or more of them will earn time as Rochestie's back up at point guard and as another option at the two-guard . Marcus Capers, Michael Harthun, Nick Witherill and perhaps even 6-7 Klay Thompson could step in.

Thompson, who had a monster senior season in leading San Margarita High to the California Division III title, is a highly versatile athlete in the swingman mode of Weaver. He recently was upgraded from three stars to four in's recruiting database and is ranked the ninth-best prep shooting forward in the nation. He averaged 21 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game enroute to Division III player of the year honors.

In the post, 6-8 James Watson could be someone who earns immediate playing time. His leaping ability and wing-span may give the Cougars the Ivory Clark-like goal-protecting presence they so missed this past season. He led Stringtown High to its second consecutive Oklahoma Class B title, scoring 15 and pulling down 11 rebounds in the championship game.

There's also highly athletic Spokane product DeAngelo Casto, the state player of the year from two-time 4A champion Ferris. The 6-8 post-man told CF.C last week that he's achieved the ACT score needed to clear his path to Pullman and now just needs to complete his coursework and graduate. He averaged 14.6 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks per game in 2007-08.

  • The Cougars' 2008-09 schedule isn't done yet, but there will be at least one familiar face on the non-conference portion of the ledger. LSU, led by former Stanford coach Trent Johnson, is tentatively penning in Ol' Wazzu for a Dec. 27 home date, according to the The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge. Of note is that Tony Bennett's wife Laurel attended LSU and is a Baton Rouge native.

  • The Cougars' annual Hardwood Classic game in Seattle is set for Dec. 13 at Key Arena against Montana State, the game's promoter told the Seattle Times last week.

  • How much did the Cougars miss Clark's shot-blocking this past season? Let the stats tell the tale ... The Cougars blocked 102 shots in 2007-08. That's 53 less than their total in 2006-07. Guess how many blocks Clark accounted for in '06-07? Exactly 53!

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