Thursday March 27th, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Taylor Rochestie hadn't revealed the specifics on the phone. All he asked Washington State teammate Daven Harmeling was this: "Can I come by and talk about something?"

When Rochestie, a junior guard, arrived at Harmeling's apartment that day last fall, he explained his plan. With one selfless act, Rochestie would embrace all five of the pillars Cougars coach Tony Bennett had drilled into their heads and into their hearts. He would give up his scholarship for his senior season so the Cougars could sign Montverde (Fla.) Academy forward Marcus Capers.

"I was literally speechless," Harmeling said. "I was just shaking my head."

Pillar No. 1: Humility

Washington State is not one of the 16 most talented teams in the nation. Not even close. The fourth-seeded Cougars reached the Sweet 16 only because they believe no player is more important than the team. Their only chance Thursday against North Carolina -- the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed -- is to play together, to be the five fingers that form the fist that grinds the Tar Heels into submission.

Bennett learned the style from his father, Dick, who handed the reins to his son in 2006. For those who don't remember Dick Bennett's grinding style think back to the 2000 Final Four. The elder Bennett's Wisconsin team met eventual national champion Michigan State in a semifinal. Halftime score: 19-17. The back pick didn't fall far from the tree, either. The younger Bennett knew he couldn't build a winner in Pullman, Wash., by stockpiling McDonald's All-Americans. They'd never come to the Palouse. He could only win by recruiting tough, scrappy players who locked down on defense and didn't mind bleeding the shot clock dry on every possession.

Unbeknownst to Bennett, one such player sat in College Station, Texas, in the fall of 2005 with a wrecked knee and no idea what might happen to his basketball team. Rochestie had made the 2005 Conference USA All-Freshman team at Tulane, but Hurricane Katrina had nearly wiped out the program. Without access to proper rehab facilities at Tulane's temporary home at Texas A&M, Rochestie, who had an injured medial collateral ligament, wondered when he could get back on the court.

"He had access to a pair of crutches and a deserted dorm building," Rochestie's older brother, Alex, said. So Rochestie decided to transfer. But only Tulane and Tulsa had recruited him hard out of Santa Barbara (Calif.) High. Rochestie wondered if anyone would even want him. Bennett did.

"Tony took a chance on me," Rochestie said. "[I was] a point guard that couldn't even show him what I was made of. He had to go back and look at high school films. I didn't get recruited the first time with those high school films."

Pillar No. 2: Passion

This is Rochestie's favorite pillar. "I've always played with passion my whole life," he said. "I hate losing. I love to win. But I love to play hard above all. ... When you've got four other players on the court with you and a whole team on the bench that plays just as hard as you, you really feel like you're part of something."

But when Rochestie arrived in Pullman in January 2006, he couldn't help his team. He spent hours in the pool rehabbing his knee. The rest of the time he spent with Bennett or with Harmeling, who was sidelined following shoulder surgery. As Washington State endured a rough patch in Rochestie's first spring on campus, he often turned to Harmeling.

"This isn't going to be like this next year," Harmeling recalled Rochestie saying. "This will not be like this next year."

Pillar No. 3: Servanthood

Rochestie recovered from the knee injury and blossomed into the player Bennett always believed he was. He played 16.8 minutes a game as a redshirt sophomore and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 2-to-1. As a junior starter averaging 34.9 minutes a game, Rochestie has gotten even better. He has 163 assists -- compared to only 58 turnovers -- and averages 10.7 points.

Before Rochestie's junior season began, the Cougars had a visitor. Capers came to Pullman for a weekend, and he loved the players and Bennett's system. Meanwhile, the current Cougars thought Capers, a 6-foot-5, 175-pound wing originally from Winter Haven, Fla., would mesh perfectly with them. But when Capers called Bennett to commit, Bennett sadly informed him that all the scholarships were taken. Shortly after, Bennett met with Rochestie. They found a way for Rochestie to serve the program like no player ever had.

"We kind of all came up with the idea together," Rochestie said. "It was a situation where I've been blessed and given so much in my life. Why not be able give something back to a program that has got me standing in front of you guys right now in the Sweet 16, playing North Carolina?"

Pillar No. 4: Utility

Alex Rochestie, a 25-year-old programming coordinator for Current.com, remembers the phone call from Taylor. Initially, Alex didn't understand why his brother would give up his scholarship. It wasn't about the money -- the family has plenty -- but Alex understood how hard Taylor worked to earn that scholarship. Alex also knew the difference in the perception of scholarship athletes and walk-ons. He knew the gesture amounted to a massive swallowing of pride.

"I'd never heard of anybody doing that," Alex said. "I was asking why it was starting with our family. But after he broke it down for me, it made perfect sense."

Men's basketball programs get only 13 scholarships a year. At a program such as Washington State, each scholarship is precious. While a North Carolina can attract the nation's most talented players every year, Washington State has to grab a Pac-10-caliber player every chance it gets. Capers was available this year, and he wanted to come. If the Cougars lost him, there was no guarantee they would have found someone who fit as well in the 2009 recruiting class. Rochestie knew that, and he also knew Capers might help make his senior year special.

So two days after telling Capers he didn't have a scholarship, Bennett called the recruit again. He explained Rochestie's gift. Capers was floored. He accepted the scholarship and called Rochestie the next day.

"I tried to thank him," Capers said. "But he said he was glad he could do something like that. Him doing something like that shows he really cares about the program."

Pillar No. 5: Thankfulness

Rochestie still can't believe Bennett took a chance on him in 2006. He wanted to find a way to repay him; by donating his scholarship, he has. "It's not going to be a burden on me and my life," Rochestie said. "It's just going to be a blessing to be able to give something back to my program."

Rochestie won't starve. He did trade in his Ford Expedition for an older Dodge Durango, but he'll still have everything he needs. Even if he had been forced to sell his ride, his teammates had him covered. "I'd be a 24-hour taxi service for Taylor," Harmeling said. "He deserves so much. ... I'd bend over backward for a guy like that."

So would Capers.

"I'm truly blessed to have him do that for me," Capers said. "I'm truly grateful to him and his family."

Alex Rochestie said neither words nor dollars could express how grateful his brother is to Washington State for resuscitating his basketball career and giving him a chance to live his dream. "For him," Alex said, "it's about the gesture more than it's about the money." Harmeling, who couldn't find the words when Rochestie first described the plan to him, found them while sitting at his locker Wednesday.

"[The pillars] are principles we talk about," Harmeling said. "Some people give them lip service, but he's living it."

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