HOOPS OPENER: Vets lead but youth aplenty

STARTING TONIGHT, the Washington State men's hoops team will play 30 regular-season games over a span of 124 days. In that time, questions will be answered, and new ones posed. None will carry more weight that this one: how fast can the crimson youth grow up? Indeed, the Cougs will field the youngest team of any major conference school in the nation.

Just how collectively young are the Cougs? With nine first- or second-year freshmen, WSU is tied with three other schools for the most freshmen on a roster in the country (Presbyterian, High Point and The Citadel), and Wazzu's group of seven true freshmen is tied for the fourth-most on any NCAA Division I roster.

No wonder then that earlier this week of tonight's opener against Mississippi Valley State, Tony Bennett was still finalizing the rotation. The guess here is C Aron Baynes, F Daven Harmeling, G Nikola Koprivica and G Taylor Rochestie -- battle tested veterans all -- will occupy four of the five starting spots Saturday. If Bennett wants to start big, F Caleb Forrest appears the likely fifth starter.

But the Cougs may ultimately be better with Forrest providing a spark off the bench and if that's the case Saturday, the Cougs may start three guards, with Klay Thompson out for the tip in his first collegiate game. The last time a true freshman started a WSU season opener was back in 2004 when Kyle Weaver went against Montana State.

Three to five frosh could play significant minutes this season for the Cougs -- count on DeAngelo Casto and Thompson being two of them. Redshirt frosh Abe Lodwick is a sharpshooter -- he buried all three of his 3-point attempts in the exhibition game -- and Marcus Capers looks to back up Rochestie at the point. Michael Harthun also figures into the mix.

AS TELLING AS how quickly the younger players can develop will be to the season, Cougar veterans will shoulder the load. Of that group, many eyes are focused on Rochestie and Baynes.

Both have looked sharp in practice though each has been dinged up at times this preseason. Baynes has been slowed by a sprained foot and was being limited to about 45 minutes of live action in the 10 days of practice leading up to Wednesday. Sandwiched around that, he played 15 minutes in the Cougs' blowout exhibition win five days ago yet still logged a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards -- with no fouls.

Baynes this offseason has dropped still more weight from his frame but he's also added muscle. Don't be surprised if he's as physical a presence at 250 pounds as he's been -- and quicker. And Bennett didn't seem overly concerned about Baynes' injury status earlier this week.

"He seems to be progressing well...I think we have good leadership with our veterans, I think that they are going to be key in this," said Bennett.

Should Baynes, whether by caution, necessity or comfortable winning margins, have his minutes limited in the early going, Bennett looks to have options. He might simply plug in Forrest. Or Casto. He could go with three forwards or three guards. Or he could spell Baynes with Charlie Enquist. C Fabian Boeke has battled his own injury woes and didn't play in the exhibition game -- Bennett told CF.C back on Nov. 8 it was unclear how much or when Boeke might be available.

THERE HAVE BEEN the usual assortment of bumps and bruises leading up to start of the season -- Rochestie tweaked his shin and Casto had a hip flexor in addition to the irritation on the top of Baynes' foot, but nothing that appears potentially long term outside of Boeke. Thought a freshman, Casto is a strong, athletic 6-8 and 229 pounds and while there's always a concern on freshmen being physically mature enough to take the pounding of a college hoops season, the Spokane product looks better suited than the average first year player.

"Klay, who's a little more slender, at times I see him look pretty worn out and tired but again he's a smart player and has enough athleticism...this is a marathon over the course of the year so we'll see," said Bennett.

THE NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE is not am easy one, and MVS has a new coach and is expected to come out fast and with new looks -- the Cougar D should be tested early. Wazzu trounced MVS a year ago but the Delta Devils turned around and reeled off 17 wins and went dancing in the NCAA tourney. They return Michael Clark, Eric Petty and Dwayne Harmason.

There are lots of new faces for the Cougs this season but Bennett said there is already evidence aplenty of chemistry in the locker room. It's the chemistry on the court that remains to be seen. Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. on Friel Court, some of those questions begin to get answered.

  • The Cougs, like most teams, are still getting used to the 3-point line which was moved out a foot this season to 20 feet, 9 inches. Bennett said he didn't think it would make too much of a difference for the Wazzu's long distance specialists. He did mention it might mean less trey attempts from Forrest over the season. "And Baynes certainly won't be," Bennett quipped.

  • Following Saturday's opener, the Cougs will host Fairleigh Dickinson on Nov. 18 in the opening regional round of the Legends Classic -- the tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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