Smooth Mutation

by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & vory Clark thought he escaped disaster when he moved from New Orleans to Pullman a few days before Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown.

Little did Clark realize he was headed into the eye of Hurricane Bennett, aka Dick Bennett.

"Last year was probably my worst college experience," says Clark, the lone senior starter on the Washington State men's basketball team. "I'd never had a coach like Dick Bennett before."

Translation: Clark never had a coach rip into him like Bennett was prone to do regularly -- and, the record shows, quite successfully -- with so many players over the years. "He was not used to a guy getting on him right on the court," WSU swingman Kyle Weaver says. "It hurt him at times -- it hurt his confidence. He's playing with a lot more confidence now."

One year later, the fiery Bennett has gone back to retirement, and Clark has gone back to having fun playing hoops for one of the nation's most outstanding and surprising teams.

Tony Bennett has been credited with bringing a calming influence to the WSU sidelines since replacing his father as head coach this season. The younger Bennett recruited Clark when he assisted his dad and clearly appreciates what Clark brings to the Cougars, on and off the court.

"Ivory is from New Orleans -- 'The Big Easy' -- and Ivory is 'The Big Easy,'" Bennett says with a warm smile. "He's 'Big Smooth,' like they used to call [ex-NBA player] Sam Perkins. He's just a laid-back, slow-talking, Southern[er] -- that's Ivory."

Clark is so relaxed off the court, he even manages to describe Katrina's impact on his family with a minimum of emotion. Of course, Clark realizes how fortunate his family was to leave New Orleans before the hurricane hit, and to be transplanted only a few weeks before moving back into their house, which sustained minimal damage.

"The first thing I did during spring break, I wanted to see the Ninth Ward," says Clark, referring to a particularly hard-hit section of New Orleans. "Until you're there physically and you feel the somberness ... words can't really describe it."

Clark grew up in the rugged Algiers area, which helps explain why he appreciates life on the Palouse. "Pullman is peaceful, quiet," he explains. "It's quite different from New Orleans -- I don't hear too many gunshots. There's not many distractions. I can focus on my work."

Clark, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward-post, averages 9 points, 5 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots (fifth in school history since WSU began compiling blocks in 1976). He leads the Cougars in blocked shots and field-goal shooting percentage (52), but it's his defense that draws the most raves. "I've had him guard everyone on the court, except I don't think I've had him on a point guard," Bennett says.

Last month, Clark held Stanford's Lawrence Hill -- sixth in the Pacific-10 Conference at the time with 16.6 points per game -- to 0-for-10 shooting. Clark used his 7-foot-3 wingspan to tie his career high of five blocked shots on a night when WSU piled up a school-record 12 blocks. "He's a really good defender," a shell-shocked Hill said afterwards.

"I don't remember Lawrence Hill scoring on me," Clark said with a giant grin, "so I think it was my best game ever."

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar says that Clark ranks with the nation's best defenders. Oregon State star Marcel Jones didn't argue the point after scrapping for 14 hard-earned points against Clark recently.

"He's very suffocating," Jones says. "He's got long arms, and he's got a good [basketball] IQ -- he knows where you're going before you do."

"He might be our only guy who can impact the game defensively at a high level," says Bennett, who is only slightly less fanatical about defense than his father.

Clark, nicknamed "The Mutant" by teammates as a tribute to his athleticism (and long arms), still has the hops that made him one of Louisiana's top high jumpers in high school. He also starred in football, and Clark said he might stay at WSU to play defensive end next fall after turning down football scholarship offers out of high school from Clemson, Auburn and Tulane.

Strangely, Clark says the only school that recruited him for basketball was Dillard, a small NAIA school in New Orleans. Clark estimates he averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and a whopping six blocked shots per game as a high school senior, so he was baffled when he drew so little recruiting interest in his favorite sport.

"I'm still trying to find out," he mutters.

Clark starred for Dillard as a freshman, but he longed to play at the NCAA Division I level, so he transferred to junior college powerhouse Midland (Texas) as a sophomore. Shortly after Midland was eliminated at nationals, Clark says he was preparing to pick up the phone to accept a scholarship at Wichita State when Tony Bennett called and convinced him to visit Washington State.

Clark is glad Bennett called -- now. Clark likens this season to "a fantasy" compared to the nightmare of a year ago, but Clark says he can appreciate some of the grit that Dick Bennett forced him and his teammates to develop -- now.

"His coaching style and philosophy was just something I wasn't used to," Clark says. "But I think last year helped me mature."

Washington State (ranked 13th nationally, 23-5 overall, 12-4 in the Pacific-10 Conference) completes the regular season with home games Thursday (March 1) at 7:30 pm against 2nd-ranked UCLA (25-3, 14-2) and Saturday (March 3) at 4 pm against 23rd-ranked USC (21-8, 11-5). Both sold-out games will be televised on FSN. The Cougars open play in the Pac-10 Tournament next Thursday in Los Angeles.