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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    WSU in midst of best year since 1983

    If you had told Washington State junior center Robbie Cowgill at the beginning of the year that the Cougars would be 17-4 and ranked No. 18, he wouldn’t have believed you.

    Yes, he knew the same team that lost seven games by five points or less last season would be back in almost full tact.

    Yes, he knew that the Cougars best player Derrick Low was as healthy as he’s ever been, and yes he knew Daven Harmeling was capable of contributing after sitting out last season with a dislocated shoulder. But did he think a team that went 11-18 and lost its last seven games last year would be where it is today?

    “”No, I’ll be honest, I didn’t,”” said Cowgill, who started all 25 games in which he played last season.

    Early this season, though, he figured the team was heading in a positive direction.

    WSU opened with 11 wins in its first 12 games, including a 10-point win over then-No. 18 Gonzaga, and with only one win by less than six points.

    “”I knew we would be a pretty good team this year just because we had all of our guys back and we were a year older and more mature and really worked hard in the offseason,”” Cowgill said. “”I felt we bonded and our chemistry was really good, but you just really never know until you play that first game.””

    To understand the Cougars’ success, point to Cowgill’s classmate, Low, who opposing coaches say has made the difference in the Cougar attack. Low missed the first five games of his freshman season with a fractured right foot, then fractured the same foot and missed eight games the following season.

    Oregon head coach Ernie Kent knows Low’s capability firsthand Low dropped a career-high 37 points on Kent’s squad in a 77-74 overtime loss and leads the Cougars in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

    “”The difference this year is that he’s healthy for the first time, and all of a sudden he’s playing with a lot of confidence and knowing what his body can do,”” Kent said.

    “”What I saw on Saturday was just a phenomenal display of not just a very good basketball player, but just the grit and the will to not let his team lose. He brought that team back by himself.””

    Although guard Kyle Weaver leads the team in assists, Low may be the most irreplaceable member of an offense that focuses less on one-on-one play and more on creating opportunities for good shots.

    “”I think the guy they could not afford to lose would be Low,”” UA head coach Lute Olson said. “”I think Low to them is what Steve Nash is to the Suns. … I think his presence is critical.””

    In WSU’s first meeting with Arizona in Pullman, Wash., Low’s presence (four points, 1-of-12 from the field) was less critical than Harmeling’s.

    The Colorado native scored 28 points in an overtime win over the Wildcats and made 7-of-11 3-pointers on a night that, as he said, “”I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.””

    Harmeling, who’s only other 20-point game came against Gonzaga, could not be contained by Arizona’s defense, setting up shop from well beyond the 3-point line and draining one after another.

    “”We prepared for everyone, but we didn’t believe that he was going to go for (28),”” UA forward Ivan Radenovic said.

    But rare is the day when WSU wins with its offense, which has opened up slightly under first-year head coach Tony Bennett, who took over for his father Dick.

    The Cougars will still run the shot clock down to single digits oftentimes, but the goal is to get the “”first good available shot,”” Harmeling said.

    “”A lot of times it may (happen) with 10 seconds left or less, but it’s not our intention as much as people believe it is to drain the clock. We’re just trying to get a good shot and sometimes it takes a while for it to develop.””

    Cowgill said Dick Bennett, a tough-love coach, called himself a realist but “”some might say more of a pessimist.”” Tony, on the other hand, “”is more of an optimist and makes sure he knows that you’re on the same team, and he’s on your side and wants you to do well.””

    Tony’s defensive scheme has carried down from his dad. The Cougars lead the Pac-10 in points allowed and are second in defensive field-goal percentage, yet they don’t play a helter-skelter defense that pressures full court. Instead, the team that leads the Pac-10 in turnover margin is a “”containment defense,”” according to Olson.

    “”It’s the style of defense that creates so many problems,”” Olson said of the Cougars’ defense, which he said was different than that of USC or UCLA.

    That style deflated Arizona’s shooting, forcing the Wildcats into making 39 percent of their field goals. Harmeling said Arizona isn’t the first team to have trouble adjusting either.

    “”It is to our benefit against teams like Arizona or Washington, teams that like to get out and run,”” he said. “”I think they get a little frustrated and maybe tend to break down defensively at the end of the shot clock when they get a little antsy and want to get out and run.””

    It was the Cougars who have often been frustrated in the past, with no winning seasons since 1995-96. But with a new Bennett at the helm, a healthy Low, and Harmeling shooting nearly 43 percent on 3’s as well as a defense that stifles opponents, WSU has transferred its frustration unto others.

    And 1

    Cougar freshman Nikola Koprivica will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during last Saturday’s game against Oregon. He was averaging 4.6 points in 14.2 minutes per game.

    “”He was really having a solid year as a freshman and coming on and he’s a versatile player could really move without the ball and grab some rebounds and gave us a real nice lift,”” Bennett said.

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