With UCLA trying to find its way to foggy, storm-ridden, out-of-the-way Pullman, Washington (see the LA Times story linked later), we took this week to profile center Aron Baynes (shown attacking Oregon freshman center Michael Dunigan during the first half last Saturday in this AP photo). The unedited version of the feature story is on the link, along with some notes for our Thursday basketball page and the above-mentioned link. Read on.
• We'll start, as we like to do, with the feature ...
PULLMAN – As the calendar turns another leaf into a new year, millions of Americans resolve to improve their fitness. Health clubs overflow with the hordes trying to lose a few pounds, tone some muscle, increase their cardiovascular health.
In other words, getting fit.
In this, those crowds were about nine months behind Aron Baynes.
Washington State's center made the same resolution last April, after the Cougars most successful basketball season of the modern era had ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to North Carolina.
It wasn't like Baynes was a couch potato or anything.
At 6-foot-10 and a well-muscled 270 pounds, he had pounded his way to honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors as a junior, averaging 10.4 points and 6 rebounds a game in a league that included first-round NBA draft picks Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Ryan Anderson among its bigs.
But Baynes wasn't, well, as mobile as he wanted to be.
So, in preparation for his senior year, he spent the summer doing agility drills, improving his footwork and his hand-eye coordination, eating better and shedding fat for muscle.
Baynes, version 2.0 showed up for fall practice. He was leaner – at 250 pounds he had dropped about from 15 to 20 from his junior playing weight – and quicker.
"Losing a bit of weight helps," he said after practice Tuesday. "I definitely feel the best I have in my four years here."
"That certainly has helped," added WSU coach Tony Bennett. "He's gone to work on his body to get as fit as he can. He's moving better."
The tough off-season has paid off in many ways, reaching a nadir last weekend when Baynes dominated inside against Oregon State and Oregon. In the trip through the Willamette Valley, Baynes scored 36 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and was credited with four blocks shots.
He's averaging 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, both career highs. He's also shooting a career-best 72.7 percent from the free-throw line.
"My fitness definitely does help, especially towards the end of a game," Baynes said, using free throws as an example. "Instead of having to hunch over on my knees every time, I can stand up, take a couple deep breaths and focus a bit more."
Caleb Forrest sees the change. He was in the same freshman class with Baynes, and he's spent the last four years being pushed around at practice.
"He's a horse. He pushes himself as hard as he can," the 6-8, 230-pound Forrest said. "You have to get used to getting banged when you go up against him. And I don't envy the people playing against us."
The leaner Baynes is also a better shot blocker – his 21 in 17 games is only five off last year's total accumulated in 35 games – teaming with freshman DeAngelo Casto (23 blocks) to build a wall around the basket.
"Aron, the last three games, Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon, has had some key blocks late in the game," said Bennett, whose Cougars are second in the Pac-10 in blocks. "He's more vertical than people think. He runs fast and he jumps high. He may not be the quickest ... guy you see but as far as explosive, if he can get a bead on it, he can go up and block some shots."
Not only has the new fitness helped Baynes excel on the court, it's helped him stay on it as well. At Oregon State, Baynes played the entire second half and overtime. It was only the second time in his WSU career he had played an entire half without a break.
"It's not only allowing me to play 30 minutes a game, it's allowing me to do that in succession," he said of the fitness and his increased playing time.
And, with the improved body has come an improved attitude. In his first three years, Baynes had earned a reputation around the Pac-10.
"He's a matured a lot in that way," Forrest said. "He's also learned a lot from the past. Whining and complaining doesn't do any good. If you talk calmly to the refs, they're more likely to listen to you than of you're whining about it.
"That's how he's handling it now."
"Everyone's going to mature after four years in college," Baynes said. "I'm a lot more used to the way basketball is over here as well. ... And being more fit, it's helped as well. I don't get those cheap fouls from being tired."
All of Baynes' improvements will be tested the remainder of the Pac-10 season, with UCLA the first quiz tonight. It's an exam he's looking forward to.
"I think everyone was (disappointed) last year, we didn't play as well as we could against UCLA," Baynes said of the two losses WSU suffered at the hands of the Bruins last season. "We didn't get it done to a level we knew we could. That's the thing this year, we just have to compete."
No matter which Baynes has been in a Cougar uniform – the raw freshman, the back-from-injury sophomore, the emerging force as a junior or the at-times dominating senior – Bennett is just glad Baynes made the trek to Pullman from Australia.
"He's a senior and he's realizing what's needed from him," Bennett said. "He's been challenged and he's responded.
"He's still stubborn as an ox, he can be that way. But he's not letting things get into his mind as much, whether it’s a call or a silly foul or a coach telling him something. He used to get a little surly. But I've always known this of Aron, his heart is gold."
• OK, now on to the notes and information we put together for our college basketball page.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
RECORD: 3-2 Pac-10, 11-6 overall
COMING UP: Tonight vs. UCLA, 6 p.m., FSN; Saturday vs. USC, 3 p.m., FSN
OUTLOOK: After a road sweep of the Oregon schools, ninth and 10th in the Pac-10 standings, a tougher test awaits the Cougars at home this weekend. UCLA is tied atop the conference with Cal and Washington, but is coming off a 61-58 overtime loss at home to Arizona State. The Bruins (4-1, 14-3 overall) have won the last 15 times they've played in Beasley. Point guard Darren Collison is 10th in the conference in scoring (14.9 points per game) and second in assists (5.4). USC (3-2, 12-5) swept the Arizona schools last weekend, but leading scorer Dwight Lewis (15.8) might be a little hobbled this week after suffering an ankle sprain at Monday's practice.
• Washington State is rotating two spots in its starting lineup. Center Aron Baynes and guards Taylor Rochestie and Klay Thompson – WSU's three leading scorers – are givens, but the other two spots are up in the air.
"You look at who you're playing, what you need and you go with that," WSU coach Tony Bennett said Tuesday. "You just look at how we match up, who played well the last game, who practiced well and go from there."
Freshman DeAngelo Casto started against Oregon State at the power forward spot, though senior Caleb Forrest returned to the lineup against Oregon. Senior Daven Harmeling, junior Nik Koprivica and freshman Marcus Capers, who made his first start against Oregon, all have been introduced at the small forward.
The starters tonight may not be picked until just prior to the game.
• WSU's school record 28 consecutive free throws against Oregon not only shattered the Pac-10 mark for most makes in a game without a miss (USC, 22 in 2002 at Oregon) it also prompted questions for Bennett at his weekly press conference. Most centered round what the Cougars do at practice that allows them to lead the conference (76.4 percent) in free throw shooting?
"We probably do what everybody else does," Bennett said. "Trust me, there's no market cornered here."
• And finally, a couple links. The LA Times has a notebook concerning the Bruins, with the note about Pullman at the bottom. And the Oregonian has John Hunt's blog entry about UO freshman Dunigan, who has been in lots of foul trouble this year, including against WSU. •••
• That's it for this evening. Kim and I took in "Gran Torino" tonight, sitting behind a group of WSU football players. They enjoyed it as well, if their comments were any indication. Yes, Pullman is a small town. We'll be back in the morning with links. Till then ...