There is certainly no shortage of intriguing subplots as the area’s four Division I men’s basketball programs prepare to open their 1996-97 regular-season schedules this week.
Washington State, in its third season under coach Kevin Eastman, seems intent on establishing a greater presence in Spokane. The Cougars have four games - including a Nov. 30 rematch against Gonzaga - scheduled at the Arena.
Gonzaga is preparing to defend its West Coast Conference co-championship and launch the Farewell Tour of Dan Fitzgerald, who will turn the Bulldogs coaching reins over to assistant Dan Monson at the end of the season.
At Idaho, the Vandals welcome former coach Kermit Davis back for a second tour of duty, while second-year Eastern Washington coach Steve Aggers tests the addition-by-subtraction theory by welcoming eight new recruits to his roster.
Despite the return of All-American candidate Isaac Fontaine in the backcourt, Eastman faces his greatest on-court challenge since taking over the program in 1994.
Four-year starter Mark Hendrickson is gone from last year’s 17-12 team that finished 8-10 in the Pacific-10 Conference and made the NIT field for a second consecutive year.
So is shooting guard Shamon Antrum and point guard Donminic Ellison, who decided not to return for his senior season because of mounting disciplinary and academic problems.
Throw in the academic suspension of reserve guard Chris Scott and it becomes obvious that Eastman is relying on a lot of untested talent.
“We have a very young, very new group,” said Eastman, who could end up starting two true freshmen - point guard Blake Pengelly and small forward Chris Crosby. “Right now we would be considered a big question mark, because we’ll have to rely on a lot of new players.”
Along with Fontaine, who averaged a team-high 17.2 points per game last season, the Cougars return starting power forward Carlos Daniel and senior Tavares Mack, a part-time starter throughout his career.
WSU opens its regular season Saturday night at home against Boise State.
The Vandals welcome back Davis, who probably wishes he could welcome back the team he inherited from Tim Floyd back in 1988. With the talent Floyd left behind, Davis led UI to consecutive 25-6 seasons before departing for Texas A&M; and several other stops on his way back to Moscow.
Last year, the Vandals finished 12-16 overall and 5-9 in the Big Sky Conference, which suggests Davis’ rebuilding skills will be tested much more severely than they were the first time around.
Davis will work with a guard-heavy roster that prompted the move of leading scorer Reggie Rose (13.9 points per game) from point guard to wing. Former North Idaho College standout Derrick Elliott will most likely inherit Rose’s point guard duties and Eddie Turner, another NIC transfer who was part-time starter last year, could start at the other wing spot.
Starting forward Jason Jackman returns at one front-line spot and Troy Thompson and Marcus Wallace are locked in a interesting battle for the start at power forward. Thompson is from NIC and Wallace is from College of Southern Idaho.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in last couple of weeks,” Davis said.
The Vandals, in their first season as a member of the Big West Conference, open next Sunday at Big Ten Conference power Purdue. They return home to face Idaho State on Nov. 27.
Fitzgerald returns only two starters - center Paul Rogers and shooting guard Lorenzo Rollins - from last year’s 21-9 team that went 10-4 in the West Coast Conference and tied Santa Clara for the regular-season league title.
But the Bulldogs still look like one of the WCC’s elite, thanks to the additions of redshirt freshman point guard Matt Santangelo and several young players who have the potential to contribute.
Mike Leasure, who played in all 30 games last season and started two, will probably get the call at small forward, with junior Bakari Hendrix stepping in at power forward.
Rogers, a 7-foot senior, averaged 15.2 points and eight rebounds a game last season and is being billed as a leading candidate for WCC player of the year.
“If you look at him as a sophomore and see what kind of a junior year he had, my God,” Fitzgerald said of Rogers. “If he makes that kind of jump again, we have the best player in the league.”
The Zags open the regular season Saturday night against Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Their home opener is Nov. 26 against St. Martin’s College.
Aggers has only three players returning from last year’s active roster, and none of those three - Travis King, Luke Egan and Mike Sims - is assured of a starting role.
Aggers, after suffering through a 3-23 debut season that included an 0-14 record in the Big Sky Conference, cleaned house during the off-season and brought in eight new recruits.
Deon Williams, a 6-3 point guard out of Los Angeles, was one of the most highly touted of those eight, but will not be able to play until next season because of academic deficiencies. He is eligible to practice, however.
Meanwhile, Aggers plans to entrust at least three starting spots to JC transfers Rodrick McClure (point guard), Mike Lewis (shooting guard) and Kareem Scott (small forward).
Kevin Lewis, a 6-10 junior who sat out last season after transferring from Kansas State, will start at center, and either Sims or JC transfer Jon Berger will go at power forward.
The Eagles open their season Friday against Grambling in the first round of New Mexico’s Lobo Classic in Albuquerque, N.M. Their home opener is Nov. 26, against Western Montana.
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