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Low and behold

Hawaiian star has helped resurrect Washington State

Posted: Wednesday January 17, 2007 9:37AM; Updated: Wednesday January 17, 2007 3:36PM
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The heritage of Washington State junior guard Derrick Low can be traced from his left ankle all the way up to his hip.

Beneath his sock, at the base of his traditional Polynesian tattoo -- one unlike any other in college basketball -- is a design representing water. His family's guardian is Na-maka-o-kaha'i, the goddess of the ocean who waged war against fire deities in Hawaiian lore. The ink ascends his leg in a diamond-shaped pattern, with pairs of shark teeth on the perimeter. His clan's other protector is Ka-moho-ali'i, the king-shark who would guide lost boats and canoes ashore. Between the teeth are flowing lines symbolizing the eight ocean channels of the Hawaiian islands. Low's family descended from navigators who emigrated from Tahiti by boat, and the deep blue is in his blood, enough so he's been known to dive off of cliffs on Oahu's North Shore and Washington's Snake River.

The Washington State campus in Pullman -- presently the home of the nation's most surprising hoops team, with the Cougars 15-3 and a half-game out of the Pac-10 lead -- is an improbable place for Low to land. It's six-and-a-half hours from the Pacific Coast, a day's drive through the wheat fields of the Palouse and then around Mount Rainier before reaching the water. And yet Low, a three-time Hawaii Player of the Year at the Iolani School in Honolulu, and potentially the best prospect ever out of a state with little hoops tradition, committed to Washington State in August 2003 without even visiting. The three-star point guard became the first recruit in then coach Dick Bennett's inaugural class (of '04), after warming to the idea "of being part of a program on the rise."

That "rise" seemed like a long shot. The Cougars had to scrape themselves up off the ground first. They hadn't been to an NCAA tournament since 1994, or had a winning season since 1995-96. Bennett, however, was following a field-tested rebuilding plan he'd used in past stops at Wisconsin and Wisconsin-Green Bay: "Make the first class a sizable one of intangibly strong kids who will stay through the hard times," and believe that by Year 3, they'll come into their own. Bennett's son, Tony, a former Wisconsin-Green Bay star, helped guide the recruiting process as an assistant, and was groomed to take over the team when Dick retired last March. Three more of the '06-07 team's junior starters, Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill and Daven Harmeling (none of whom had a Rivals.com star rating) joined Low in that class.

Low, a 6-foot-2-inch combo guard who leads the Cougars in scoring at 14.3 points per game, was an intriguing player in Bennett's eyes. A kid whom his high school coach, Mark Mugiishi, described as "fun-loving," "free-spirited," and "in love with the beach nature of Hawaii" doesn't, on the surface, fit the geography or the buttoned-up world of Bennett-ball. But Wazzu made Low its top recruiting priority after seeing him at the Nike All-American Camp in 2003, and battled Utah, Hawaii and Gonzaga for his services.

Dick Bennett also pursued Low because he evoked memories of his son, who starred for him from 1988-92 at Wisconsin-Green Bay and played three seasons with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets. "Tony was not a big talker, but had an inner fire, and Derrick reminds me of that," Dick said.

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