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TALK OF THE TOWN RESURGENT COUGARS HAVE FANS IN PULLMAN ENERGIZED.

Byline: BRIAN DOHN

Staff Writer

PULLMAN, Wash. - Ivory Clark was at the bank when astranger started chatting up Washington State's basketball team. Later, at the store, the same thing happened.

Yes, a stone's throw from Moscow, Idaho, where the winters have a reputation for being as punishing as its namesake in Russia, an incredible moment is taking place in the unlikeliest of the Pacific-10 Conference's nine cities.

Folks are talking about Washington State basketball -- for all the right reasons. The Cougars are winning, the community is bustling and support is booming.

Although a loss a week ago at Oregon seriously damaged Washington State's chances of winning a Pac-10 title, the loss did little to dampen the enthusiasm within the town of 25,000 on the Eastern edge of the state.

When No. 2 UCLA visits No. 13 Washington State tonight at Friel Court, the Bruins will be greeted by the rarity of a sellout crowd of 11,500. Until this season, it had beenmore than 20 years since Washington State's last sellout.

"Walking around campus, I actually enjoy going to class," said Clark, a senior forward in his second season in Pullman after playing at Midland (Tex.) College. "People ask for your autograph. I had to pay people to give them my autograph last year."

The Cougars use a disciplined, strong defense and a methodical offense to dictate tempo and frustrate opponents. The style, talent and experience has Washington State (23-5, 12-4) in second place in the Pac-10, and it can still earn a share of its first conference title since 1941 by sweeping UCLA and No. 23 USC this weekend, and also having the Bruins (25-3, 14-2) lose Saturday at Washington.

Sure, the likelihood of those events transpiring appears small, but after what Washington State has accomplished this season, nothing seems impossible.

The school's last winning season came in 1995-96, and the Cougars' 23 wins is tied for fourth-most in school history. Washington State is already assured of finishing at least third in the conference, which will be its highest spot since George Raveling's 1982-83 team finished second.

The Cougars will make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994, but there is a downside. Because the school is hosting a sub-regional in Spokane, the Cougars cannot play there. So scores of fans will not be able to cash in on years of frustration and apathy and make the 80-mile drive to see Washington State play. Instead, the Cougars will be sent a plane's ride away.

Still, it hasn't taken away from the euphoria on campus, and the attention engulfing the program.

"This is different, and in many ways it's been a shock to me, personally, and as a team we sometimes shock ourselves," guard Jeff Weaver said. "Seeing Washington State come across the bottom of the screen (on television) with a number (ranking) by it, it's a dream. It's special. I never thought it would be this good."

First-year coach Tony Bennett, who took over after his father, Dick, left following last season, melded an eclectic group of under-recruited players from across the country. Point guard and leading scorer Derrick Low (13.9 ppg) is from Honolulu; Weaver (11.1 ppg, 4.8 apg) hails from Beloit, Wis.; Clark (9.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) is from New Orleans; forward Daven Harmeling (9.9 ppg) is from Grand Junction, Colo.; and forward Robbie Cowgill (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is from Austin, Texas.

Not one Cougar is from Washington.

"You could look at our whole roster and say we gambled just about on everybody," Bennett said. "We were in a place where really not a lot of people wanted to come to Washington State, to be honest with you. We looked at kids that we projected were going to be good and we have a chance to get, and they're legitimately excited to be playing in an elite league, like the Pac-10, and being part of rebuilding a program."

The Cougars are doing it without star power.

UCLA has guards Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison, Oregon has Aaron Brooks, USC has Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt and Stanford has Anthony Goods and Brook Lopez.

Washington State doesn't have a scorer in the top 13 in the Pac-10, and its leading rebounder (Weaver) ranks 17th in the conference.

Clark, a senior forward, joins four starters who are in their third season at the school.

"I think part of it the kids have been in the system now for two or three years," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "They've been doing the same curling coming off screens, how to read screens, how to set screens, how to hedge screens, how to stay in front of the ball, how to have (their) hands high and active all the time.

"Every time you play them, it's like a root canal."

Washington State plays the same deliberate style, but Tony Bennett, who served on his father's staff for three seasons, subtly changed the offensive approach. The Cougars were always known as a strong defensive team, but also a methodical, plodding offensive team that would rather score in the 40s than the 60s.

Clark said the freedom now exists to, when open, take quicker shots and push the tempo. After averaging 57.3 points during Dick Bennett's tenure, the Cougars are scoring 66.5 per game this season.

"It's just being free and able to express yourself on the court," Clark said. "It's like a painter who gets to paint freely. It lets you loosen up and play."

Rather than playing for the sole purpose of making someone else's day miserable, Washington State is playing for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. For now, that is on everyone's mind, but the focus will change after the season.

Bennett, 37, was the primary recruiter for many of the players, responsible for selling kids from across the country on taking a chance on Pullman. Job offers are expected to fly in from around the country, causing Washington State's administration to reconsider Bennett's original five- year, $2 million deal.

"We're working on it," Cougars athletic director Jim Sterk said. "We want to reward him as much as we can, and Tony made it clear he doesn't want it to be a distraction. We're doing some things. We're going to do some things by the end of the season, and have some revisions."

brian.dohn@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

CAPTION(S):

photo, 2 boxes

Photo:

(color) no caption (Washington State)

Box:

(1) No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 11 WASHINGTON STATE

(2) WASHINGTON STATE
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:1098
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