PULLMAN – It’s quite obvious things are different around the Washington State University men’s basketball program.
Head coach Tony Bennett is gone to Virginia after three winning seasons, replaced by former Portland State coach Ken Bone.
Point guard Taylor Rochestie and post Aron Baynes are overseas, leaving behind a roster with one senior and no juniors.
And tonight, when WSU officially opens practice for the 2009-10 season, the Cougars will pair up with the women’s team for “Midnight Mayhem,” an open-to-the-public event featuring a 3-point contest, dunk competition, scrimmage and autograph session.
The event, scheduled to start in Bohler Gym at about 8:30 p.m., following the volleyball team’s Pac-10 match with USC, is something Bennett’s Cougars avoided like a zone.
It’s also the only major event this evening as the area’s Division I college basketball teams begin practice.
Gonzaga, coming off a 28-6 season, opens practice tonight. The Zags are holding Kraziness in the Kennel at 5 p.m. on Oct. 24. That event will feature a scrimmage that will allow the public to see Gonzaga’s six-player recruiting class. They’ll join returnees Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray, Demetri Goodson, Robert Sacre and Will Foster, and redshirt freshmen Grant Gibbs and Andy Poling in an attempt to earn GU’s 12th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Usually we have a good nucleus of returners that can kind of bring one or two guys along,” Gonzaga associate head coach Leon Rice said. “This time, it’s the opposite The majority is the new guys.”
The graduation of Jeremy Pargo, Micah Downs, Josh Heytvelt and Ira Brown, and Austin Daye’s early departure for the NBA mean the Zags will need immediate contributions from some of the newcomers (Elias Harris, Sam Dower, Bol Kong, Manny Arop, Kelly Olynyk and G.J. Vilarino). Arop has been wearing a protective boot after experiencing discomfort in his foot, but he’s been cleared to practice.
Rice said the incoming class “physically has a lot of gifts and that’s a great place to start, but they have to learn how to play Gonzaga basketball and to play together so they’re all on the same page with the veterans.”
Sacre, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, “has had a tremendous offseason,” Rice said. “He probably worked as hard as anybody in basketball and I think he’s going to reap the benefits of that.”
Eastern Washington’s third-year coach Kirk Earlywine will put his shorthanded Eagles through their first official practice at 5 p.m., hoping to improve on last year’s 12-18 record and seventh-place finish (6-10) in the Big Sky Conference.
Eastern returns five letterwinners, but two, starter Brandon Moore and reserve Gary Gibson, are unable to practice because of injuries.
Idaho, coming off a 17-16 season, opens practice with a closed session this evening at 5. The Vandals senior backcourt of point guard Mac Hopson and shooting guard Kashif Watson return, will be bolstered by the addition of University of the Pacific transfer Steffan Johnson, an all-Big West selection in 2007-08.
Washington State, also 17-16 last season, is flush with newcomers, including six freshmen, Bone and four other new faces in the coaches’ office.
“It’s been like it’s my first year,” said lone senior Nik Koprivica of the fall workouts. “Most of the things are new … but new coaches, you’ve got to meet them, see who they are, first impressions, get adjusted to the way we’re going to work out.”
Bone, who took Portland State to the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, will ask the Cougars to push the ball more on offense, while still playing an effective half-court defense that is slightly different than the Bennett model.
“The defense is a little bit different in regards to intensity,” Bone said last week. “Rebound expectations are different. Transition offense and defense are different.
“So far most everything we’ve done is at least a little different. Not a lot … we’re tweaking some things.”
Sophomore Klay Thompson, who along with DeAngelo Casto were members of the all-Pac-10 freshman team last season and the U.S. U19 FIBA World Championships team this summer, is expected to carry a large part of the WSU offense.
Thompson averaged 12.5 points last season despite shooting just 31 free throws in 33 games. The 6-foot-6 wing has added strength and ball-handling skills in the offseason in an effort to get to the rim – and the free-throw line – more often.
“Hopefully, I can step it up,” he said. “I’m excited to take on the challenge. Taylor and Aron were our main threats last year, so it will be fun to take that role. That’s what I came here for.”
He knows that assimilating all of the changes won’t be easy.
“It’s going to take some adjustment, but I think we’ll be fine,” Thompson said. “It will take some time.”
One adjustment, however, was easy.
When Bone was asked if he wanted his team to participate in tonight’s event, he said it wasn’t his decision. It was the players’. He let them vote. They said yes.
“I don’t know how (tonight) is going to look,” Koprivica said. “We’ve never had it. I’m pretty new about it. We’ll see. Something new, good to try.”
Just like the 2008-09 WSU season.
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