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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Leaving memories behind

PULLMAN – The 2006-07 Washington State athletic season is essentially over, and it didn’t take long for the 2007-08 year to start.

In an early – and much-anticipated – return to the court, the Cougars men’s basketball team strode out onto the Beasley Coliseum floor Monday evening for the first of 10 days of practice before a trip to Australia and New Zealand for six games in June.

And they left no doubt this upcoming trip is not a digestif after the NCAA tournament run in March but rather an aperitif before what they hope is a return trip in 2008.

“That year’s done,” said head coach Tony Bennett, who apparently now will be called last year’s Pac-10 and national coach of the year. “All spring, our guys have been told how good a job they’ve done. Now we can get to work. Whereas if you go through the summer (with the praise) – now we know what we need to work on. It’s kind of humbling to be on the floor again and say, ‘Wow, we’ve got a ways to go.’ “

Bennett and his staff put a slimmed-down roster of nine through a fairly strenuous but still light-hearted practice, readying themselves for the international game with a 24-second shot clock, trapezoidal lane and deeper 3-point line.

WSU has only nine players on the floor with the graduation of Ivory Clark and the transfer of sophomores Mac Hopson and Chris Matthews.

Rising senior Chris Henry has a family commitment and will not join the Cougars until later this week, so for the time being 5-on-5 drills include an assistant coach.

“Some of the guys that didn’t play a lot during the year are going to get minutes,” said Robbie Cowgill, who along with a number of teammates just returned to Pullman after a brief vacation following the spring semester. “It was kind of sudden. I was in Texas (Sunday) morning, got off the plane and went straight to Bohler (Gym) and shot a little bit. It seemed normal, just opening up my locker and getting back into it. It feels like home now.”

Some of those Cougars who are returning do look different than they did just a few months ago, most noticeably center Aron Baynes, who has shed more than 20 pounds since returning from ankle and foot injuries during last season. All-Pac-10 guard Derrick Low appeared to gain upper-body muscle, as did forward Caleb Forrest.

All the off-season work – and, the Cougars hope, the fun and bonding that will take place on this trip – is done with an eye toward next season, when WSU has a chance to go to the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time in school history.

WSU is likely to start the season in the top 10 and a virtual guarantee to appear in the top 15, and the expectation bar will be higher than ever for these Cougars.

“It could be one of the best years this program has ever had,” Cowgill said. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s plausible. We want to do everything we can to make this year the best we can, and if this can help us, the coaches want to do it.”

And not surprisingly, they will approach this new season with painful memories of the end of last season close at hand. The double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the second round still doesn’t sit well with WSU, and much of the next year will be spent in the hope this squad can do better.

“78-74,” Cowgill said without hesitation when asked if he remembered the final score of the loss. “I know that one.”

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