Oct. 12, 2007
PULLMAN, Wash. -- The Washington State University men's basketball team starts its highly anticipated 2007-08 season as it opens up practice Friday, Oct. 12. The Cougars' Friday practice, which begins at 7 p.m., is closed to the public. Practices will be open to the public beginning Monday, Oct. 15.
Cougar fans will have the opportunity to see the team in action in an intrasquad scrimmage, Saturday, Oct. 27, from noon to 2 p.m. at Friel Court. WSU will then host Lewis-Clark State College in an exhibition game, Sunday, Nov. 4 at 4 p.m. The season opens at home, Friday, Nov. 9, as WSU hosts Eastern Washington at 6:30 p.m. at Friel Court.
With four starters and 10 letterwinners returning from last season's record-setting 26-8 squad, expectations are set high for second-year head coach Tony Bennett and the Cougars in 2007-08.
Predicted to finish last in the Pacific-10 Conference prior to the season, the Cougars surprised the entire nation in Bennett's debut, setting the school record for wins in a season, tying the best Pac-10 finish in school history (second, 13-5), tallying five wins over ranked opponents, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994 and picking up numerous national and regional awards, including national coach of the year honors for Bennett.
Hoping to ride the momentum from 2006-07, but looking at the present, the Cougars have accepted the fact that they will not be able to surprise anyone this season.
"I'll take the good from last year, the experience of it and the confidence we gained from it," Bennett said. "The thing that will be challenging is that when you have a good year you're going to get those teams' best shot the following year. We'll be ranked higher than last season in the polls and conference so we won't be able to come out of nowhere, we did that for one year. Now people are going to respect us right from the get-go and give us their best shots. It's what we expect and what we'll have to be ready for. We have to play at a high level to come close to what we did last year or hopefully go beyond."
The Cougars return the majority of their backcourt from last season's squad, highlighted by senior leaders and 2007 All-Pac-10 honorees Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Low and Weaver led the team in scoring last season with 13.7 and 11.2 points per game, respectively. Weaver also returns as the team's leader in steals (2.2 spg), assists (4.6 apg) and rebounds (5.6 rpg). Also returning to the backcourt is redshirt junior Taylor Rochestie who proved to be a real asset to the team, especially late in the season, averaging 16.4 minutes per game with six starts. Rochestie finished the season scoring double-digits in four of WSU's final five games, and will be looked upon to take a load off of Low and Weaver when it comes to ball handling duties.
"I can sum up the backcourt with one word; experience," Bennett said. "Derrick, Kyle and Taylor have a lot of Pac-10 games and a lot of college basketball experience under their belts. These guys took their lumps as freshmen and sophomores without a lot of success and now we have two seniors and a junior in the backcourt that have the experience and talent to lead the team to a successful season."
After their strong seasons in 2006-07, the nation is aware of what Low and Weaver are capable of, but after battling injuries early in the season, Rochestie is prepared to put in a big season for WSU in 2007-08.
"I don't know if you take a giant step in your improvement from your junior to senior year, regarding Derrick and Kyle, but they've improved mentally, a bit physically and just in their game in small strides," Bennett said. "Last year Taylor saw limited minutes due to injury early in the season, but he's had a full season and a full summer of strength, conditioning and health. I hope his game will be at a better spot to start the season than it was last year. How these three set the tone for our team will be huge."
Although not as experienced, Washington State will get a lot of depth out of its bench at the guard position. Sophomore Nikola Koprivica returns to the lineup for the Cougs in 2007-08. Koprivica averaged 4.8 points and 1.1 assists in nine games before a knee injury ended his season early in January.
Koprivica is joined by redshirt freshman Thomas Abercrombie and true freshmen Abe Lodwick and Stephen Sauls off the bench. Abercrombie redshirted last season, but had a solid showing this summer while representing his native New Zealand in the World University Games. Sharpshooting lefty Lodwick and proven point guard Sauls will be looked upon to add quality minutes.
"I think the two strengths of our team this year are quality experience and quality depth," Bennett said. "We have depth with a little inexperience. Once Nikola gets back to full health, we can rely on him. We also have depth in freshmen Thomas Abercrombie, although he's a redshirt freshman, Abe Lodwick and Stephen Sauls. We also have senior Jeremy Cross, who's a tough, competitive kid who doesn't have a lot of game experience. I can name eight players for two-to-three spots, sometimes two if we let Daven Harmeling in for a bigger lineup. So there is some depth with a lot of experience on one end, and not much on the bottom end of it."
The Cougars' lone loss in the starting lineup comes from departed senior center Ivory Clark who averaged 8.4 points per game and led the team in blocks last season with 1.6 bpg. With the loss of Clark, senior Robbie Cowgill will be looked upon to step up in his final season with the Cougs down low. Cowgill was one of just two players to start all 34 games for WSU last season, averaging 8.1 points and 5.4 boards per outing.
"I'm looking for an improved year from Robbie," Bennett said. "He had a real solid year last year, he was kind of the unsung hero of last season's team in my opinion. He did all the dirty work, guarded good players, blocked shots and rebounded. He's an athletic, lively 6-foot-10 player. With the departure of Ivory Clark, his play is going to be significant. He's gotten stronger, I expect good things from him."
Also returning from last season's starting lineup is clutch shooter redshirt junior Daven Harmeling who spilt time at the guard and forward positions last year. Harmeling ranked third on the team with 8.9 points per game, including nearly 10 points a game in Pac-10 play, while shooting .430 (55-of-128) from beyond the 3-point arc.
"Daven's very experienced and returns from a very good sophomore season," Bennett said. "He shoots the ball well, he's different than our other interior types because he can really stretch the defense with his three ball. He's such a team-oriented, tenacious kid."
After battling injuries early in the season, 6-foot-10 junior Aron Baynes returns to the lineup stronger and more experienced for his third season as a Cougar. Baynes started seven games last season, averaging 5.2 points and 3.1 rebounds. Baynes also represented his native country, Australia in the World University Games this summer, where he led the team and ranked third in the games with 18.1 points and second in the games with 9.0 rebounds per outing.
"Aron Baynes has had a full offseason of health and good playing experience with our trip to Australia and the World University Games," Bennett said. "We have good size with the combination of him and Robbie."
Providing depth inside are junior Caleb Forrest, freshman Fabian Boeke and redshirt junior Chris Henry. Forrest saw action in 23 games last year, while Henry saw limited action as a junior. Forrest provides versatility, while Boeke and Henry bring size to the lineup.
"I hope Caleb can get some quality opportunities to play this season," Bennett said. "Fabian Boeke will provide some depth. You never know how freshmen will respond, but because he is older and experienced, hopefully he'll give us some quality time. That remains to be seen as the season unfolds, I don't know if you can predict yet. Chris Henry is a physical presence. I think the numbers are there. Replacing the guy we lost in Ivory will be a little more by committee. They're all a year older, a year stronger and hopefully a year better."
The Cougars are expecting big things from the group of returnees this season.
"I feel there's always a sense of urgency in your senior year," Bennett said. "I hope they realize that they've been on the bottom when they got here, scraping for a bit of respectability, then last year they touched some success and saw what could be. I hope this year those seniors will have a strong desire to say, `hey, we've got some unfinished business and we really want to solidify this basketball program for the years to come, but we want to put our stamp on our four years here and end it the right way. We came and made progress.' I hope the Derricks, Kyles and Robbies want to leave this program in a much better place than they found it and put a stamp on it as they finish out their careers here...which is hard to believe. There's nothing like a `last stand' in your career to motivate you."
Although the group of returnees is expected to make the biggest impact, Bennett and WSU see a potential impact from this season's group of newcomers.
"I expect the older players, the seniors and juniors, to lead the way and show the newcomers, what it's all about, how to win and how to be a part of an excellent team," Bennett said. "I expect them to learn those roles, but be as hungry as they can be, and try and be ready when called upon, whether their role is small or big. I want them to be prepared to do whatever they can this year, but also know their time will come, if not now, when they're upper classmen. I hope they're at a spot where they'll learn from our upper classmen and fill-in in whatever way they can and provide quality depth. In two years these freshmen will be the Robbies, Derricks and Kyles of this year."
Thirteen games against fellow-2007 postseason participants, "home" games at Spokane and Seattle and an appearance in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series highlight the 2007-08 schedule.
WSU will play 16 "home" games, including 12 in Pullman, a three-game tournament at the Spokane Arena (Nov. 23-25) and one game at Seattle's KeyArena. (Dec. 20).
"Last year we played more home games," Bennett said. "This year, with a more experienced group, the challenge will be going on the road four times in the nonconference season."
The Cougars open up the season at home against Eastern Washington (Nov. 9), renewing an in-state rivalry that dates back to the 1906-07 season. The two teams haven't met since WSU's 91-72 victory at Cheney during the 1998-99 season.
The grueling road schedule opens up at Boise State (Nov. 13), followed by a road matchup at Baylor (Nov. 30) in the first Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. WSU's final two nonconference road games include 2007 NCAA Tournament participant and in-state rival, Gonzaga (Dec. 5) and Idaho State (Dec. 23).
"We've got a tough nonconference road schedule with Boise State, Baylor, Gonzaga and Idaho State on the road," Bennett said. "The four challenging road games will hopefully get us battle-tested for the Pac-10 season."
Joining Eastern Washington on the home schedule are games against Idaho (Nov. 16), Portland State (Dec. 9) and North Carolina A&T (Dec. 28), Air Force (Nov. 23), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 24) and Montana (Nov. 25) at the Cougar Hispanic College Fund Classic at Spokane Arena and The Citadel (Dec. 20) at KeyArena.
The Cougar Hispanic College Fund Classic features two 2007 NIT participants in Air Force and Mississippi Valley State, and regional-foe Montana.
"We are excited to have Air Force, Montana and Mississippi Valley State in Spokane for the tournament," Bennett said. "In the past we've had a game in Spokane, but this year having a tournament in Spokane is great for our program to get exposure and exciting for our fans, especially with our students gone from Pullman for break."
The Cougar Harwood Classic returns to KeyArena as WSU takes on cross-country opponent, The Citadel.
"I think we've got a good thing going with Seattle," Bennett said. "Every year we get more fans and everyone gets excited. I think it's good for our program and good for our fans on the West Side."
The Cougars' other five 2007 NCAA Tournament teams on the schedule this season come from the Pac-10 in USC (away, Jan. 10/home, Feb. 9), UCLA (away, Jan. 12/home, Feb. 7), Oregon (home, Jan. 20/away, Feb. 16), Arizona (away, Jan. 24/home, Feb. 23) and Stanford (home, Feb. 2/away, March 1).
"The Pac-10 itself has six or seven teams ranked in the preseason top-25," Bennett said. "Our league will be absolutely outstanding. The schedule in general is going to be hard-fought."
WSU concludes its regular season at home against its biggest rival, Washington (March 8/ away, Jan. 5).
"That game has a lot of passion and energy regardless, but since it's the last game our seniors will play on Friel Court, I think there will be a lot of emotion in the building," Bennett said. "I couldn't think of a better last game. I think it will be a wonderful atmosphere and hopefully it means a lot for a lot of reasons."
The remainder of the schedule includes Oregon State (home, Jan. 17/away, Feb. 14), Arizona State (away, Jan. 26/home, Feb. 21) and California (home, Jan. 31/away, March 1).The Pacific-10 Tournament takes place at Staples Center in Los Angeles, March 12-15.