by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ick Bennett, never one to mince words during his tenure as men's basketball coach at Washington State, got right to the point after Aron Baynes went nuclear yet again during a trying freshman season.

"You're just like a big bear with a sore ass," Bennett huffed.

Two years later, the emotional Baynes still struggles to control his temper at times. Opponents, however, are having even more trouble trying to control the giant Australian on the basketball court.

Baynes, a 6-foot-10, 270-pounder, came into the week leading the Cougars with 11.8 points (tied with Derrick Low) and 6.4 rebounds per game and a lofty field-goal shooting percentage of 67.2.

The improved play of Baynes, who starred for Australia in the World University Games last summer, was a key factor in WSU's fast start (10-0 coming into the week). The Cougars have been ranked in the top 10 in both national polls, and the intimidating presence of Baynes in the middle has helped Washington State rank among the NCAA Division I leaders in points allowed.

"He's really worked hard to improve his game," says Tony Bennett, who replaced his father as WSU's coach last season.

"He's such a physical force."

Baynes ranks among the Pacific-10 Conference leaders in field-goal percentage these days, but he might have led the league in temper tantrums when he first arrived in Pullman.

"I'll get on myself harder than I should sometimes," Baynes says. "I want to try to get to the next level, so I have to put a lot of pressure on myself, I guess.

"That was coming over in a bad way towards the rest of the team. It wasn't making me look like part of the team."

"I think people misunderstand Aron," Bennett says. "They see him early on and go, 'Oh, he has a temper.'

"He does have a temper, but he's not disrespectful. You hear people saying, 'He must be a handful.' The demon he battles is himself; he gets ticked off at himself."

After battling injuries and inconsistent play and minutes for two years, Baynes is developing into the type of dominant inside force the Cougars have lacked for years. In WSU's last home game, Baynes scored 23 points, had six dunks and buried all nine of his field-goal tries in a 72-60 win over Portland State.

"I just want to be a presence in the paint; collapse the defenses to open up other guys on the team," says Baynes, a kinesiology major who made the All-Academic Pac-10 team last season.

"He's a tremendous teammate," Bennett says. "He does anything for the team.

"I really enjoy him. He's very tough-minded."

Baynes has been proving that since leaving his hometown of Cairns (pronounced "Cans") at 15 to further his basketball career. When WSU assistant coach Ben Johnson offered Baynes a scholarship, he signed up without ever seeing Pullman.

"The first time I'm coming in," Baynes recalls with a smile, "I'm on the plane, and I saw wheat fields and nothing else.

"All of a sudden, we started going down [to land], and I thought, 'Where the hell are we going? What choice did I make?'

"But ever since I got here, since the first day, the people have been grand."

Moving halfway around the world forced Baynes to adjust to harsher weather ("It started getting a bit cold for me at the end of August"), tougher basketball ("Just the intensity") and, last but certainly not least, the highly demanding Dick Bennett.

"I had never played for anyone who had that kind of knowledge about the game," Baynes says. "He can be a bit aggressive in the way he tells you things. It's just a matter of not reacting to that and just taking what he's trying to get out, because the message is always right.

"Freshman year, I was just trying to be a big sponge, trying to take in as much as I could. Tony's great, too. He's got that Dick Bennett system, but he's a bit more lenient on the offensive end; he gives us more freedom."

Give a big bear freedom to roam, and some people are bound to suffer the consequences.

The Cougs return to Pullman on Friday, Dec. 28, at 7 pm for a matchup with North Carolina A & amp;T. Then they start Pac-10 play with a date against the Huskies in Seattle on Jan. 5 at 7 pm. For tickets, call 1-800-GO-COUGS.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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