BUZZIN' THE PALOUSE: The sleeper among us

NICK WITHERILL

THERE'S A SLEEPER IN Tony Bennett's incoming recruiting class. All the talk has tended to focus on Klay Thompson, Michael Harthun, Marcus Capers, James Watson and, of late, DeAngelo Casto. But how about Nick Witherill? The sharp-shooting guard out of Gilbert, Ariz., may be the least-hyped prospect in the Cougs' 2008 class, but consider this impressive nugget from his resume ...

He committed to WSU back in August of 2006 -- as in, before the Cougars became the Cinderella talk of the nation.

Before it was hip to say hoops and WSU in the same sentence, before Tony was linked to every job from here to Timbuktu, Witherill believed in the future of the program. He believed in it enough to go ahead and make a commitment, as high school sophomore, to a team that was at the bottom of the Pac-10. That alone makes him intriguing.

When you consider the 17 points per game he's averaged over his prep career, along with his passing abilities and prowess on D -- it's easy to see why Bennett and staff are excited about his arrival in Pullman.

"He's a good athlete and hard-nosed competitor -- a very intense competitor," WSU assistant coach Ben Johnson told CF.C last week. "He has a good understanding of team defense and as an on-ball defender he ranks right up there. Offensively, he can shoot with range. I think people will be pleasantly surprised."

Witherill will also be a perfect fit in another way. He's unselfish. The coach at Gilbert High, where Witherill transferred to this past fall after three years at Saguro High, told the Arizona Republic recently: "He came from a situation where he shot the most, scored the most, but he's been team-oriented and selfless, trying to make us a better team. He deserves a lot of credit for us being good."

THE OUTPOURING OF CRIMSON adulation for Coach Bennett's decision to stay at WSU was interrupted last week in a letter to the editor of the Daily Evergreen. "It's ridiculous and insulting to praise and deify someone for doing what they are supposed to do," the writer alleged.


BAYNES THROWS ONE DOWN ON UNC.

Given WSU's history with coaching louts like Dennis Erickson and Jackie Sherrill, a little love for Tony is only understandable. But in the broader context, here's the simple truth of major-conference coaching: contracts do not bind either party to the length of the agreement. Buyout clauses exist as a way to negate the contract, and it is not just coaches that take advantage of them. Schools can fire coaches at will, like Oklahoma State's untimely firing of Sean Sutton after just two seasons running the Cowboys. These days, coaches leave their programs and vice versa on a remarkably consistent basis. Why should Tony have to be 100 percent faithful to WSU when there is no guarantee of the same loyalty from his employer?

Ultimately, Tony's decision had little to do with honoring his contract, and everything to do with his family and the recruits he promised to coach. The reason we honor Bennett is that he turned down a job that offered three times the money and resources. No matter how you slice it, hat's unusual.

LESS THAN A MONTH AFTER making the Sweet 16, the Cougars are back to being underdogs. The national pundits who already are making forecasts for 2008-09 don't have the Cougs within sniffing distance of the top 25. In fact, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi left Wazzu off his projected field of 64 for next season. Meanwhile, Andy Katz not only left the Cougs out of his preseason top 25, but had the temerity to include Cal and Washington in his "other teams considered" category and not WSU. It's safe to say Bennett should have no trouble selling the underdog message to next season's Cougs.

Perhaps the national pundits underestimate the return of veteran seniors Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes and Daven Harmeling, and Caleb Forrest too, in a conference where one-and-done is becoming the norm for talented freshmen.


THE DREAM WEAVER.

While NBA scouts may be drooling over the likes of Love, Bayless and Mayo, wily old Cougs Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low are also on the draft radar. The latest update from the folks at NBAdraft.net predicts Weaver going to the Celtics with the 30th and final pick of the first round. Low has been widely seen as a second-round choice, but NBAdraft.net dropped him off their list after Low's struggles last week at the Portsmouth Invitational. He was 0 for 7 from three-point range and 9 for 27 from the field overall.

ACCORDING TO SURVEY data compiled by CBS Sports the most popular college basketball team in America is North Carolina and the most despised is Duke. The Cougs rank No. 32 on the most-popular list. And -- no doubt fueled by bitter Gonzaga and UW fans – they rank No. 42 on the most despised list. UCLA was the Pac-10 leader on both lists – checking in at No. 6 for most popular and No. 7 for most despised.

WSU INTRODUCED ITS NEW volleyball coaching staff this week, giving "The Superfans" -- Washington State's fervently loyal front-row group of volleyball fans – new hope for a turnaround. Long-time South Dakota State head coach Andrew Palileo is the new boss in Pullman. But get this. The Cougs aren't just gaining one head coach out of the deal. They're getting three. Palileo's two assistants at WSU will be Brian Lamppa, head man at the University of South Dakota for the last five seasons, and TeAna Crutcher-Tramel, the head coach at Bethany College in Kansas for the last two years.

Cindy Frederick, who led WSU to 10 NCAA volleyball tourney invites before leaving Pullman for her alma mater, Iowa, in 2004, has embarked on an interesting new career path. After going 9-71 in Big Ten matches, she resigned as Hawkeyes coach in December, and now is working as the recreation director for a fitness club in Waverly, Iowa.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Grady Clapp is a professional student and avid sports fan at Washington State. He earned a general science degree last year and will come away with second sheepskin, in pharmacy, next year. He is a native of Veradale, just outside Spokane, and a proud graduate of Central Valley High. For more of Grady's insights, visit his blog at StadiumWay.wordpress.com

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