Kevin Eastman makes his Pacific-10 Conference debut as the men’s basketball coach at Washington State tonight under the most trying of circumstances.
The Cougars’ opponent, California, comes into Friel Court 7-1 and ranked 17th in the country. The talented Bears go 11 deep and like to apply full-court pressure the entire game.
In addition, WSU’s campus is nearly deserted because of the Christmas break. And whatever kind of intimate crowd school officials might have expected will probably be pared down because the game will be televised live on ESPN starting at 9:06.
Still, with all of that against him, Eastman contends that his sympathies are with the official scorer.
“You better have a great guy working the book,” said the first- year Cougars coach, whose team is 4-3 coming off a second-place finish in last week’s Sun Classic in El Paso, Texas, “because the number of substitutes that come through when you play Cal is tremendous.”
Eastman said he watched part of the Bears’ 89-76 win over Cincinnati earlier this year and was amazed that they had used 10 different players before 9 minutes had elapsed.
Todd Bozeman, in his third season as Cal’s head coach, has 11 players averaging at least three points and 11 minutes a game. Eight different players have started and none is averaging more than 29 minutes.
“It’s going to be a really tough game for us, no question about it,” said Eastman, who has only 10 players on scholarship, “because their strength is probably our weakness. They’re tremendously deep and we’re not real deep this year.
“Hopefully, in the future, we’ll have every bit as deep a team as Cal does, but that’s not the case right now. With them, it’s kind of a different guy or different two guys doing it each game, so it’s really hard to (focus) on one particular player.”
Bozeman said it’s all part of the plan to help make up for the losses of Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray, who left school early for the NBA following the 1993-94 season
Actually, Bozeman said his heavy substitution pattern is part of the plan he has had in place since taking over the program. But, because of injuries that riddled last year’s team, he hasn’t been able to use it.
“I said before that coming into the season, depth, versatility and chemistry would be our assets and, so far, that has held true,” Bozeman said. “We have different guys that are contributing in one way or another every night.
“This was the plan all along. We could easily have done this last year, but injuries affected it.”
Senior forward Monty Buckley, a two-year starter who has managed to avoid the injury jinx haunting his teammates, is the only Bear to start every game this year. And he leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.8 points per game.
Buckley is one of only two seniors on the roster, but Bozeman still has plenty of experience. Junior guard K.J. Roberts and junior forward Alfred Grigsby were both starters two years ago, but missed most of last season with injuries.
Roberts has recovered almost completely from the foot injury that shelved him, but Grigsby is still bothered by back problems.
Fortunately for Bozeman, his latest recruiting class has lived up to its billing and provided a couple of bigtime freshmen in 6-foot-6 guard Jelani Gardner and 6-6 forward Tremaine Fowlkes.
Fowlkes is averaging 13.6 points a game, and Gardner leads the team in assists with 5.8 per game.
Surprisingly, Bozeman said he has had no problems with players griping about sharing minutes.
“This team has great chemistry,” he said. “They all like each other and they understand that we’re going to win as a team and that everybody has to contribute.
“We’re trying to get the maximum out of everybody while they’re on the floor. So, if you get tired, in order to stay honest with your teammates, you pull yourself out of the game, because we want to try to play at the maximum for 40 minutes.”
Eastman isn’t certain his under-manned team will be able to handle the pace - especially the relentless fullcourt defensive pressure.
“You’ve got to attack their pressure,” he said. “They’re good at it, they know they’re good at it, they’re going to use it every game no matter what, and it’s just something you have to contend with.”
If the Cougars do happen to spring the upset, they won’t have much time to celebrate, because unbeaten and 23rd-ranked Stanford is due into Friel Court Saturday for a 3 p.m. game.
“Obviously, it’s a real tough weekend ahead,” Eastman admitted, “because you have to protect your home court and then sneak a few on the road.
“It’s a big weekend for us, but I’m not going to go to the point where if we lose one or lose two of saying it’s the end of the year. By no means is it over, because we’re still a team that is trying to develop, trying to evolve.
“And as we look at the total picture - with having most of these guys back for even two seasons after this one, we realize we’re still very, very early in the process with the program.”
MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: California at Washington State
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