Cougar hoops: Rookies give reason to smile

PULLMAN -- Don't let his unassuming manner and easy grin fool you -- Tony Bennett is a taskmaster. He was all about grit and determination as a player, and nothing has changed since he followed his famous father into coaching. On Monday night, however, Dick Bennett's son had very little to complain about.

Washington State's heralded freshman class made its Friel Court debut in an exhibition game against Lewis-Clark State, and even ever-demanding Dick Bennett would have been pleased with what he witnessed.

WSU's Kiddie Korps lived up to its advance billing, treating 5,091 show-me-what-ya-got spectators to oft-sensational shooting, passing and defense in a 76-31 cakewalk. L-C State shot a frosty 20 percent from the field and was outrebounded 44-27.

A word of caution here: The Warriors are an NAIA team. Nothing more, nothing less. L-C State is ranked 22nd in NAIA Division I, which is roughly equivalent to 322nd in NCAA Division I.

The Cougars were infinitely bigger, thicker, more athletic and deeper than the Warriors. L-C State played without 7-foot Tennessee State transfer James Craft due to a knee injury, and standout point guard Napoleon "JR" Gordon was limited to 11 ineffective minutes by a back ailment.

Still, the raw skill and athleticism of WSU's freshmen was there for all to see. The eight freshmen in uniform combined for 50 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists, five steals and three blocked shots, even though playing time was spread evenly after the Cougars bolted to such unsightly leads as 12-0, 30-4 and 48-15.

"A lot of those freshmen, I know they were excited for their first opportunity to play," Bennett said. "I thought they shared the ball well and did what they had to do."

DeAngelo Casto, the 2007-08 prep player of the year in Washington, may have been the best player on the floor. The 6-foot-8 power forward, energetic and effective at both ends of the court, scored a game-high 18 points in 19 minutes. He missed just one of eight field-goal attempts and one of five free-throw tries, and he collected five rebounds, one blocked shot and one steal.

"He has a nice feel for the game, he really does," Bennett said.

"There's a lot of encouragement from the older guys," Casto said.

Keep playing like that, kid, and you'll be getting "encouraged" for a long, long time.

Klay Thompson, the 2007-08 California Division III prep player of the year, was the lone freshman to start. The 6-foot-6 guard delivered eight points, four assists, one block and one steal in 19 minutes.Thompson showed some moxie by quickly hoisting and sinking his first two shots -- both 3-pointers -- in the first 4-plus minutes. However, he missed seven of his other eight shots, including all four other trey attempts.

"If I have an open shot, I'm going to take it," Thompson promised.

"We're all fine with Klay shooting whenever he touches the ball," senior forward Daven Harmeling said. "He's that good."

Perhaps, but on this night, Thompson wasn't the best-shooting freshman. That distinction belonged to redshirt Abe Lodwick, who went 3-for-3 on high-arcing 3-points for his only shot attempts and all nine of his points. Another frosh guard, Mike Harthun, showed off his nice jumper and scored nine points on 4-for-7 shooting.

The "old-timers" didn't let the youngsters have all the fun. Senior center Aron Baynes racked up 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds in just 15 minutes. Senior point guard Taylor Rochestie found time to collect five points, six assists and a steal in just 15 minutes. Senior forward Caleb Forrest (3-for-3 shooting, six points) and junior guard Nikola Koprivica (five points) both looked sharp.

Are the Cougars ready for the Pac-10? No way. They're off to a fine start, but team leaders like Harmeling aren't about to let the freshmen get carried away with thinking they've got the game mastered. "I feel like they have a lot to learn about the game," Harmeling said while seated next to Casto and Thompson at a post-game press conference. "But they can definitely get there."

Harmeling hastened to add, "I'm not hatin' on 'em -- they're good!"

YOUNG GUN IN THE HOUSE: Patrick Simon, the Ephrata High School star who verbally agreed to accept a basketball scholarship at WSU when he was just a 14-year-old freshman, attended the game to watch older brother Daniel play for L-C State. Patrick wore a protective boot on his right foot and said he's expected to miss his entire junior season with a stress fracture.

COMING UP: The Cougars open the regular season Saturday against visiting Mississippi Valley State. The game time has been pushed back half an hour to 7:30. The Delta Devils played in the NCAA Tournament last spring, but they lost 70-29 to UCLA in the first round. The Cougars buried the Devils 71-26 last November in Spokane. Mississippi Valley State, a member of the traditionally weak Southwestern Athletic Conference, lost the top three scorers off a 17-16 team.

ALLEN TOWN: Curtis Allen, a senior transfer from NCAA Division I Oral Roberts, led L-C State with 41 points against NAIA completion in the Warriors' first two official games of the season over the weekend. On Monday, he went 0 for 9 from the field, mostly on helter-skelter drives to the basket, and scored just three points in 30 minutes. The 6-3 Allen had a quickness advantage over the 6-7 Harmeling when they were paired up, and the ever-candid Harmeling said he was "embarrassed" about getting "diced up" by Allen.

A COLORFUL NEW: electric sign board has been installed in front of the official scorers' desk at Friel. The long sign carries ads and various other messages, plus the name, uniform number and mug shot of WSU players.

L-C STATE COACH Tim Walker has guided the Warriors to nationals two straight years, but he was just as classy after Monday night's blowout as he was following last year's 80-42 exhibition loss at WSU. "It's always a lot of fun," he insisted. "It's an honor that they allow us to come up and compete. I wish we could play better. I wish they can get a little more out of it. I know our guys enjoy coming to this environment. It's a heck of a lot better than playing somewhere else in front of an empty arena."

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