Posted: Wednesday January 17, 2007 9:37AM; Updated: Wednesday January 17, 2007 3:36PM
Part of the attraction was the high school system in which Low had flourished. Mugiishi, a surgeon by day and a basketball coach by night in Honolulu, has guided the Iolani Raiders to five consecutive state titles using a early version of Bennett's Pack-Line pressure defense and a motion offense that's similar to Washington State's, sans the size in the post.
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"I'd always say that we were running the Bennett D," said Mugiishi, "and Dick and I became friends during the recruiting process, talking about basketball and the evolution of defense." Low was a stellar scorer and sure-handed distributor, in addition to being the pressure-point on D -- basically, a "glue-guy" who Bennett thought could be the centerpiece of Wazzu's turnaround.
The Bennetts' rebuilding effort has relied as much on their players' patience as their toughness. Before experiencing the thrills of his junior season at Wazzu -- including court-storming wins over Gonzaga and Arizona in Pullman, or a three-point loss at top-ranked UCLA -- Low proved strong enough to endure a series of disappointments.
His first big-time suitor was Roy Williams at Kansas, and Low might very well have headed there, had Ol' Roy not taken the North Carolina job -- and called Derrick to inform him, regretfully, that he had to honor the Heels' pre-existing scholarship offers. He then chose the Cougars, his only other major-conference option, but struggled through serious foot injuries that sidelined him in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Wazzu finished sixth and 10th in the conference, respectively, in those years and entered '06-07 picked to finish in the league cellar. The basketball world at large had zero confidence in the Cougars, and yet internally they remained ready to pounce.
"We knew we needed to bring in a solid guard, and I knew at the time that Derrick could be a four-year starter," said Bennett. "I don't think, at the college level, you can win without having a guy who everybody knows is going to be out there all the time. That was Tony at Green Bay, and Mike Kelley at Wisconsin, and Derrick here at Washington State."
This season, with Dick Bennett turning the program over to Tony, Low has moved into a combo-guard role to open up Wazzu's offense, with versatile breakout star Kyle Weaver (10.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) handling the majority of the point-guard duties. The Cougars have jumped to 65th in the national offensive efficiency rankings, up from 256th in '05-06, with Low becoming a go-to guy. "I wanted Derrick to be aggressive and hunt his shot more," Tony Bennett said, and Low is taking nearly a quarter (24.7 percent) of Wazzu's attempts, while playing 34.4 minutes per game and averaging just 1.1 turnovers.
Low's father, Kenneth, said after Derrick committed to Wazzu, he began carrying a Tony Bennett NBA card in his wallet. "Tony, like Derrick, lacked NBA size but had other attributes that let him compete," said Kenneth. "And Derrick looks up to guys like Tony and Steve Nash for how they play."
When Dick Bennett stepped aside, Low wasn't worried about the transition. "I just felt like, if anybody could make me better, it would be Tony," said Derrick. "He had the mental toughness to get to the NBA as a small, white guard, and he's made me a lot tougher as a player."
Low was unfazed by the early on-court struggles at Washington State because he learned toughness at an early age from his father, who has worked for the past 26 years as a mechanic for Honolulu's city bus system and raised three boys (Chase, 8, Derrick, 20, and Dustin, 28) as a single parent. Kenneth supported Derrick's burgeoning hoops career but kept all of his trophies and certificates in storage, refusing to put any one of his sons on a pedestal. Derrick didn't have his own car, and wasn't allowed to have a cell phone until his senior year at Iolani.