Big-boned Meadowdale grad shining at Western

  • JOHN SLEEPER / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, December 9, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By JOHN SLEEPER

Herald Writer

BELLINGHAM – At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Ryan Kettman isn’t a small guy.

But two years ago, when he first found himself trying to shove Brian Dennis off the low block, Kettman might as well have been trying to move Brazil. Kettman angled his muscled body at a 45-degree angle and buried his forearms into Dennis’ lower back.

No go. Didn’t even budge.

“It was an eye-opener,” Kettman said.

It was kind of funny, really, watching Kettman trying to move mass that was roughly 11/2 supermodels heavier than he. When Dennis reported to the Western Washington University men’s basketball team out of Meadowdale High School, he was a 17-year-old freshman.

Oh, and he was 6-6 and about 330 pounds.

Way out of shape. Stubborn. Bit of a clown, maybe.

When Kettman was doing the Push Mower Boogie against Dennis’ sizeable backside, Dennis (dubbed “Yogi” for his cartoonishly affable manner as much as for his considerable bulk) could no more complete a conditioning drill than he could slip into a car for the Indy 500.

What in blazes were the coaches thinking in recruiting this guy?

“Some of us took it pretty hard because we didn’t think he was doing enough to get himself in shape,” Kettman said. “He took a couple hits from guys. He was always a guy who had gotten by because of his size, but at the same time, we were pushing him. Sometimes, you’ve got to light a fire.”

That was 30 pounds ago.

Teammates and foes have learned you don’t push Dennis anywhere he doesn’t want to go and that he does little he doesn’t want to do.

The flip side is when Dennis wants to do something, little gets in his way.

Which is what this is about.

Dennis played in short spurts as a freshman because short spurts were all he could offer. He could jog up and down the court a couple of times, but had only so much energy to move any significant length of time. Sure, he could use his mass to bulldoze for rebounds and the occasional putback, but as far as sustaining anything within a state line of a prolonged effort – get real.

When Dennis came to Western, conditioning drills were death marches.

“That was awful; it was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Dennis said. “Coming out of high school, I knew I had to run a little bit, but I didn’t know how much. I was dead.”

He didn’t work his keister off in high school because he didn’t have to. Few could cope with Dennis’ bulk, so he got away with a few dozen extra pounds.

Not so at Western.

“He didn’t make it through 10 minutes before he was gassed,” WWU coach Brad Jackson said. “Honestly, I had a concern that he was so big. But he hung in there and worked. It’s been a process for him, but it’s a big payoff.”

The payoff is what Dennis is doing now.

He’s third in the Pacific West Conference rebounding (12 a game), third in field-goal percentage (72.5), third in blocked shots (2.17 a game) and is tied for the team scoring lead at 16.7 points a game.

If Dennis gets the ball on the low block, forget it. It’s either a dunk off a power move or a pair of free throws. Defensively, he uses his strength and 7-foot-plus wingspan to guard players 4 and 5 inches taller than him and to swat away shots.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Dennis transformation: Foul trouble may be the only reason to yank him.

Conditioning is not a problem.

“His stamina is so much better than it was before,” said WWU assistant Rob Visser, who works mainly with forwards and centers. “It’s absolutely amazing, how big he is and how hard he can play. At the end of practice, he’s still going up and dunking over everybody.”

“Brian made a conscious decision, I believe, at the end of last year that he was going to work hard to maximize his abilities,” Jackson said. “We’re seeing that off the floor as well as on the floor.”

That decision largely was based on the way WWU’s season ended last year, a 97-90 loss to Seattle Pacific in the playoffs.

“There was a big disappointment with the way the season ended, losing to SPU,” Dennis said. “I just told myself that I was going to do whatever it takes, one, to beat SPU, and two, to make myself the best player I can be.”

To do that, Dennis stayed in Bellingham over the summer. Lifted weights. Ran. Took classes.

“I was pretty much in the gym or the weight room every day,” Dennis said. “I knew what it would take for me to get where I want to be.”

The thing is, where Dennis is may be beyond even his expectations.

Against Cal State Bakersfield, Dennis pulled down 21 rebounds, a PacWest record and the most by a Viking in 12 years.

“It felt like every time the ball hit the rim, it was coming right into my hands,” he said. “I didn’t really have to work for it.”

“It was fun to watch,” Visser said. “They have some very good players. But every time the ball went up, basically, Brian said ‘It’s mine.’ You’ve got a guy that big and that strong and he jumps that well, he just dominates.

“It was a man-among-boys sort of thing. You watch him go up, and he’s a foot higher everybody else. They don’t have a prayer. There’s just no way anybody else is going to get any balls.”

And if foes don’t grasp that concept, Dennis is more than happy to tell them about it. While he says he refrains, at least most of the time, from getting vicious with talking trash, SPU center Eric Sandrin heard plenty of details of Dennis’ life.

Just to get him off his game, understand.

“I say whatever comes to mind,” Dennis said. “I got to the point in the SPU game where I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I was telling Eric how many people we had at the school, what the girl-to-guy ratio was, I told him where I live, to come over,” he said. “Whatever I could think of, I’d say. I’m not out there to break a guy down and tell him how bad he is, but just to get a rise out of him, just to get some sort of reaction. Then I know I have him.”

While the sudden improvement on the court is impressive, Dennis has room for more. He’s developed a lethal jump-hook, is working on a mid-range jump shot and can even stand to lose a few more pounds. When he graduates from Western in 2002, basketball overseas isn’t out of the question.

“That would be a great experience, but whatever happens is going to happen,” he said.

Who’s going to tell him otherwise?

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