by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ollege basketball locker rooms are filled with testosterone-spewing giants, many of whom combine their freakish size with macho personalities that can intimidate strangers.
Then there's Washington State senior Robbie Cowgill, a tall drink of water with a smile bigger than his waistline and a warmth about him that makes people instantly at ease.
"He's a very encouraging, upbeat guy," WSU small forward Daven Harmeling says. "He has a great work ethic. He's humble."
"He's a great kid, great teammate and great leader," coach Tony Bennett says. "He's sort of an unsung hero in my eyes in terms of: He does all the little things."
Cowgill, a not-so-powerful power forward, packs maybe 205 pounds on a 6-foot-10 frame.
"It depends whether it's before or after breakfast," Cowgill jokes.
Cowgill likes to flex his muscles for teammates, but close observers claim they're still waiting to see the first hint of a bicep. "I'm not exactly overpowering,"
Cowgill says with a sheepish grin.
Cowgill makes up for his lack of muscle with quickness, smarts and an ability to draw opponents away from the basket with a silky-smooth jumper.
"He has a skill set you don't see too often from a guy 6-foot-10," Harmeling says. "He has a really good feel for the game."
"His quickness is a great asset," Bennett says. "He's learned how to use that, and he's pretty fearless. He's not afraid to stick his nose in there and battle."
Cowgill averaged 8.1 points and a career-high 5.4 rebounds last season. The Cougars managed to go 26-8 and reach the second round of the NCAA tournament despite being outrebounded in 22 games.
"We're going to try to get on the offensive glass and get to the free throw line more," Cowgill says. "We're going to make more aggressive plays, because against the best teams, we've got to do that more."
Cowgill, a native of Austin, Texas, is a devout Christian who speaks with great warmth about his family, friends and teammates. However, Cowgill admits he lied to Bennett when he was being recruited and tacked on a few pounds to his real weight, since he weighed less than 180 at the time.
Bennett accidentally discovered Cowgill at a summer tournament in Las Vegas prior to Cowgill's senior year in high school. Bennett was waiting to watch another player in the following game when Cowgill's athleticism and ability to run the floor caught the coach's eye.
Bennett, a WSU assistant at the time under his father, Dick, presumed the horde of college coaches on hand were there to watch Cowgill. He soon discovered that virtually no one from major conferences was recruiting the skinny youngster, who made second-team all-state as a senior.
"There was an upside to him," Bennett says, "even though you had to look past, 'OK, wow! He could get broken in two in the Pac-10.'"
That hasn't happened yet, although Cowgill swears, "I pretty much eat a ton" to try and add weight.
"Of course I wish I weighed more," he says, "but it's not like I didn't put in the work. I feel good."
Cowgill also feels good about WSU's chances for success this season. The Cougars, who were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-10 last season (they wound up second), are ranked 10th in the nation in the first USA Today/ESPN coaches poll.
"It's very different," Cowgill says. "Obviously, we've never experienced anything like this.
"Part of me likes it because of the exposure for the school. But it was almost more fun to have people doubt you so you can play with a little chip on your shoulder.
"Instead of proving people wrong, you're almost trying to prove people right."
Cowgill proved Bennett right for recruiting him -- on and off the court. Cowgill, a business administration major who was recruited by academic heavyweights like Yale, Cornell, Colgate and Bucknell, made the Pac-10 All-Academic team last season. He carries a B+ average in the classroom -- not bad for a guy expected to start for the fourth straight year.
"His faith -- you can see it in how he lives his life, in terms of who he is and his character," Bennett says. "He's just an awesome young man."