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IF YOU want to know what makes fourth-ranked Washington State tick, consider the first of its five guiding principles, established by former coach Dick Bennett and carried on by his son and successor, Tony—humility. The Cougars are a group of lightly recruited Americans and a few foreign players who have lifted a program that was 2--16 in the Pac-10 the year before Dick Bennett arrived in 2003. They know their role, and it's not to dazzle. After Washington State beat Washington 56--52 last Saturday in Seattle, Cougars forward Daven Harmeling called the game "ugly" but added, "that's how we like to play. The majority of our road wins are grind-it-out games that fans probably don't want to watch on TV. But that's fine with us."
The victory, the Cougars' sixth straight over their instate rival, pushed their record to 13--0 and marked the program's best start since 1935--36. To beat the Huskies, who came in averaging 78.2 points a game, the Cougars limited their turnovers (seven) and played their trademark team defense. (At 49.8 points a game, their scoring defense is the fifth best in the nation.) "They're just solid; throughout every play they are the exact same team," marvels Washington forward Jon Brockman, who emerged from the game with a constellation of scratches and gouges, painful testament to the Cougars' physicality. "They made it hard for us to get into a rhythm, while they were comfortable the whole game."
The Cougars didn't seem troubled by their woeful output of just 17 points in the first half—"We were excited to be only three points behind," says Harmeling—or by the frenzied crowd in Hec Edmundson Pavilion, which produced a deafening roar that failed to rattle Cougars senior swingman Kyle Weaver as he made three free throws in the final 27 seconds to seal the win. "This environment doesn't faze them," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. "They are a very resilient, mentally tough group."
The Cougars are one of the most experienced teams in the country; five players, including Harmeling and starters Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill and Weaver, remain from the original recruiting class of 2004, the first brought in by the Bennetts. Two juniors round out the starting five: center Aron Baynes, a 6'10", 270-pound bruiser from Australia who averages 11.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, and point guard Taylor Rochestie, a transfer from Tulane who averages 4.8 assists.
Of the other four principles the Cougars abide by—passion, unity, "servanthood" and thankfulness—Tony Bennett, who took over for his father last season, says unity is the most important for this team. "In our case the whole really is much greater than the sum of the parts," he says.
Rochestie, however, has set the standard for serving the team. In October he announced that he would play as a walk-on next season so the Cougars could use his scholarship to sign Marcus Capers, a 6'5" slasher out of Florida. "I wanted to do something for the legacy of the program, and that's worth more to me than the value of the scholarship," says Rochestie. "I'm proud of what we've built, and I want it to continue. I don't want us to be a one-hit wonder."
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