Cougar hoops: ups, downs as Bennett retools

PULLMAN -- For now, let's hold on a rematch with North Carolina. After all, even the senior-laden Cougars of a year ago are still licking their wounds from the Sweet 16 setback last March by the mighty Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament. Fast forward eight months, and North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the land, and Washington State is 41st if you scroll down to "others receiving votes."

That's one spot past Siena.

Such is life for a WSU squad with five more freshmen (nine) -- counting two redshirts -- than seniors (four).

Oh, but what a promising collection of freshmen it is. The Cougar faithful got their first glimpse at WSU's heralded rookies when the team's only public intrasquad scrimmage was held Saturday morning before an appreciative Bohler Gym crowd estimated at 1,100.

The scrimmage was rarely a thing of beauty, what with a steady stream of basketballs and bodies banging around here, there and everywhere. It was obvious, however, that the freshmen inject a healthy dose of athleticism to the lineup, and several veterans looked new and improved.

The best player on the court? Senior point guard Taylor Rochestie, without question. Wearing a pad on the sore left shin that kept him out of WSU's sloppy scrimmage loss to Portland State last Saturday, Rochestie scored at will on gorgeous drives to the hoop and also played tenaciously at the defensive end.

Rochestie's left-handed finger-rolls are a thing of beauty.

The hustle and grit of senior sweataholics Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest was amply displayed, along with Harmeling's sweet 3-point shooting. The fourth WSU senior, Aron Baynes, made an abbreviated appearance as a precautionary measure while continuing to work his way back from a foot injury. The slimmed-down big guy did find time to sink a textbook sky hook.

For the freshmen, Washington prep player of the year DeAngelo Casto from Ferris of Spokane impressed with his hard work at both ends of the floor. Super shooter Klay Thompson went frosty after burying a 3 early, but he saved his other two baskets (both 3's, one launched from somewhere near Colfax) and only made free throw for the waning minutes of the third and final period of the hour-long scrimmage.

Marcus Capers, who appears to be emerging as the top backup at point guard, stuffed a rushed 3-point attempt by Rochestie from the right corner at the end of the third period. That final period matched the true freshmen against the vets, and the youngsters prevailed, 14-11.

The 6-foot-4 Capers and 6-7 forward James Watson are long and athletic freshmen. Michael Harthun is a heady "2" guard who also may see time at the point. Nick Witherill, another freshman "2" guard, buried a nice trey from the left corner.

Redshirt freshmen Abe Lodwick (a 6-7 guard) and Charlie Enquist (a 6-10 forward) both showed the benefits of a year in the Cougar system. Lone junior Nikola Koprivica looked sharp and appears fully recovered from the knee operation that slowed him last season.

To summarize: Don't expect a third straight season of 26 wins, but don't rule out a third straight NCAA Tournament. It won't be easy with nine freshmen and just two returning starters, but the Pac-10 isn't as daunting this season, and the Cougars have enough quality coaching and senior leadership to help the freshmen evolve during the season.

COACH TONY BENNETT, who drew a standing ovation when he entered the gym, left most of the coaching to his assistants. Bennett's primary contributions came with a microphone in his hand.

"I've told them (WSU's freshmen) our home-court advantage is one of the best in the country," Bennett informed the crowd before introducing his coaches and players.

"It's clear we've got a ways to go," Bennett said after the scrimmage. "I'm realistic that way. "I thought some guys showed some nice things. There was some good and bad. The competition will step up and the intensity level and the pace of the game."But for the first time being out in public, I thought some guys did some good things. I don't judge too hard as far as an intrasquad scrimmage. I was just curious to see how some of the young kids would respond."

INJURY REPORT: Harmeling wore a light, restrictive sleeve on his ailing left shoulder. Walk-on point guard John Allen and sophomore forward Fabian Boeke were sidelined with lingering back problems.

Boeke, a 6-11 German with a sweet jumper, has not practiced since last week. Boeke has been slow to recover from last winter's back operation, and Bennett said it is unclear how much Boeke will be able to play this season.

POINTS TO NOTE: Bennett said Allen is the only true point guard on the team besides Rochestie, but the coach sounded encouraged about the development of other potential backups to Rochestie.

"You can see Capers has got some natural skills there," Bennett said. "Mike Harthun, even Klay Thompson, those guys can (play the point)."You've got to do it ‘by committee.' Would I say they're natural 1's (point guards)? No. But they can handle the ball in certain situations."

THE STARTING LINE UP: Bennett said he's not set on a starting lineup. However, returning starters Rochestie and Baynes opened the scrimmage on one team with fellow potential starters Harmeling, Forrest and Thompson.

Bennett said he is not certain how much Baynes will play in WSU's lone scrimmage Monday at 7 p.m. against visiting Lewis-Clark State. The Warriors are an NAIA Division I team from Lewiston. "We're just being careful with Aron," Bennett said.

IDLE CHATTER: When neither side scored in the first 2 minutes of the final period Saturday, a courtside observer asked, "Is it going to finish in a scoreless tie?

"An acquaintance, fully aware of the inadequacies of the WSU and Washington football teams, replied sarcastically, "They're getting us ready for the Apple Cup."

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