Cougar hoops: Instant PT in store for Nick?

NICK WITHERILL DOESN'T look much like Mr. T. No Mohawk. No menacing grimace. No biceps the size of Mount Rainier. But after talking with his prep coach and Witherill himself, it's apparent that this left-handed combo guard from the Phoenix area should be dubbed Mr. T -- as in Mr. Tenacious. Tony Bennett has landed a scrapper of the first order.

"He's just a tenacious, tenacious competitor," Mark Carlino, Witherill's head coach at Glibert High, said in a recent interview with CF.C. "He's very passionate about winning and performing well."

Cougar assistant coach Ben Johnson, a long-time disciple of Bennett Ball and a man not given to hyperbole, offers up perhaps the ultimate compliment. "He's a good athlete and hard-nosed competitor -- a very intense competitor. He has a good understanding of team defense and as an on-ball defender he ranks right up there," he told CF.C earlier this year.

Witherill himself is matter-of-fact. "I just like to play really hard 100 percent of the time," he says.

Carlino makes no secret of his belief in the 6-3 Witherill, who has gained 15 pounds over the last two years and now tips the scales at 180. The kid plays defense. He's unselfish. He's a tireless worker.

Sounds like the perfect fit for Bennett. In fact, given Witherill's lanky build, versatility, nose for defense and absence of recruiting hype, it would seem there are shades of Kyle Weaver here.

Carlino goes so far as to suggest Witherill, who can play point or shooting guard, has what it takes to crack the Cougars' starting lineup this winter.

Guard is where Bennett definitely is looking for instant assistance from his new class of five freshmen recruits. With the graduation losses of Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low and the injury/transfer of Stephen Sauls, Taylor Rochestie is the only returning point man on the team. In addition, the losses of Weaver and Low open huge minutes at shooting guard.

Bennett's incoming freshmen are widely viewed as the greatest one-season haul of talent in WSU history. Ironically, the least heralded of the five-member class -- Witherill -- is the one who got the ball rolling when he verbally committed to the Cougs just before his junior year of high school, back in the summer of 2006.

"I think I am going to surprise people next year because I was the first commit when they weren't very good, when they were rebuilding and no one thought that I was that (Pac-10) level of player. But I think I can compete with all these guys coming in, at a high level," Witherill says.

Carlino echoes those sentiments: "I really think he will surprise a lot of people next year. He works hard, he's very talented, and he's very athletic -- not one of your high-flyer types, but the guy is extremely athletic.

"He might not be as heralded as some of those other guys, but he is very accomplished and very seasoned when it comes to high-level competition … He's a guy who has succeeded in every step he's ever been in and I don't think it's going to be any different when he gets to Washington State."

As a prep junior in 2006-07, Witherill earned All-Stare honors as he led Saguaro High to a 24-6 record and the Class 4A-I state semifinals. He averaged 25 points per game in the playoffs and more than 21 for the season. He transferred to Gilbert High for his senior campaign. His scoring averaged dropped to 16.9 points per game because he was no longer a one-man show, but demands on his passing skills grew significantly.

"His spot-up shooting will get better and better, and it's good already but he needs to continue to work on it and he needs to continue to evolve into a quicker decision maker when it comes to spot-up shooting," says Carlino.

But get this. Witherill brings the Cougars a weapon that hasn't been a hallmark of the Bennett era: a nice mid-range jump shot. "When he's got the proper spacing his mid-range game is as good as it gets," says Carlino. "That is something that I think will help Washington State; I don't think they had a lot of guys who had great mid-range games and Nick's mid-range game is exceptional.

Witherill spent the spring working with a strength and conditioning coach to improve his lateral speed. What he calls the "quickness factor" is his biggest concern moving from high school to college, but quickly adds, "I think I can stick with them."

Asked who he would compare himself to, Witherill didn't hesitate. "I grew up a big J.J. Redick fan, so I would say a little like him because he is just a pure shooter, and he's extremely fundamental. I've also been watching Steve Nash a lot, so maybe a little like him as well."

Now that is an unheralded freshman to cheer about.

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