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Mack Rejoins Cougars Eastman Grants New Life To Former Starting Forward

Move over, Justin Mott. You too, Will Hutchens.

It’s time to make room on the bench for Tavares Mack.

The Washington State University forward was cleared Friday to rejoin the basketball team, nearly three weeks after being suspended for skipping a Dec. 1 practice and saying he had lost interest in the game. Mack had since expressed interest in rejoining the team, but coach Kevin Eastman was reluctant to bring Mack back.

Finally, after consulting assistant coaches and players, and on the eve of a 16-day road trip that hastened the need for closure, Eastman decided Mack deserved another chance. The coach made it clear, however, that Mack might have trouble finding playing time and will not necessarily regain his starting position, since occupied by senior Cameron Johnson.

Eastman’s ruling allowed Mack to accompany the team Friday afternoon to Coeur d’Alene, where the 6-1 Cougars will stay before Sunday’s 2 p.m. game against San Jose State in the Spokane Arena. From there, WSU heads to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic, followed by a trip to Los Angeles for Pacific-10 Conference games vs. UCLA and USC.

Mack averaged 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds through WSU’s first three games, the last of which was a Nov. 30 victory over Gonzaga. He left the team two days later, and Eastman said it wasn’t the first time Mack had become disinterested.

But it didn’t take long for Mack to miss basketball.

Apparently hungry for a game - any game - Mack was seen last weekend playing in a pickup game at Bohler Gym.Wednesday, he was back at practice, if only to watch.

Mack did not attend Friday afternoon’s practice and was unavailable for comment, but Eastman said Mack will resume practicing today.

“The reason I give him a break is I know he’s a good kid at heart,” Eastman said. “He’s worked at coming back. He hasn’t just sat back home. He has initiated some conversations. A little thing like going to practice, stuff like that.”

Eastman said Mack will not play before Dec. 28, when the Cougars open the Rainbow Classic against Georgia.

“He’s going to have to work really hard because Cameron is pretty productive right now,” Eastman said. “Where I think Tavares is very lucky is that Steve (Slotemaker) has still got the flu. Steve’s down to 205 (from 220 pounds). That’s where I think he lucks into some minutes.”

The Cougars won three of four games in Mack’s absence, beating teams from the Big Sky and Big West conferences.

And while the impending Pac-10 schedule promises to be far tougher, Eastman said that wasn’t a factor in the reinstatement.

“We’re playing pretty good right now,” he said. “As I told the team, if it was winning and losing, it probably would have even been an easier decision, because I don’t think we’re that appreciably better (with Mack), I really don’t. Especially the way Cameron is playing right now.

“What ultimately made the decision was, (assistant coach Warren) Riley and I were having a discussion about it, and he made a point that we are really in this business to help good kids out, and he’s a good kid who has done some really good things in the community for us.

“The major hurdle I had to get over was, did I think he was sincere in admitting a mistake?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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