WSU hoops: Bennett wants more off the glass

PULLMAN -– The undefeated Cougar basketball team is off to its best start in a decade following Saturday's come-from-behind win over Boise State. But first-year head coach Tony Bennett said Monday that the 65-63 victory over the Broncos actually highlighted weaknesses the Cougars must fix. Chief among them: Lack of rebounding.

"We need to get better on the glass – we've been hurting for some rebounding," Bennett said. "And (we) just need to be physical and tough. And we're taking steps to improve that."

The Cougars were out-rebounded 40-27 by Boise State. Two games prior, against Texas-San Antonio, the Cougars were out-glassed 36-31. For the season, WSU's rebounding margin per game is a slim +1.3. By way of comparison, consider the margins of the region's heavyweights. Gonzaga's is +9 and Washington's is +13.

Bennett didn't elaborate on precisely what steps are being taken to improve the Cougars' work down low.

Going with a bigger line up, though, could be an option for him now that the team's most physical players –- 6-8, 257-pound junior Chris Henry and 6-10, 270-pound sophomore Aron Baynes -- are back in action.

Baynes, who came on strong late last season, saw his first action of the season in the Boise State game following six months of recovery from ankle surgery. He played just one minute Saturday and will figure to need several weeks to get all the rust off. Henry, coming off an ankle sprain that slowed him through the fall, is back to full health and could see his minutes climb.

Henry isn't bashful about mixing things up underneath and also is the Cougars' savviest screen setter.

Robbie Cowgill (5.3 boards per game) and Ivory Clark (6.3 rebounds per outing) have started in the post in each of the Cougars' six games this season, with 6-7, 216-pound sophomore Daven Harmeling – the hero of the Boise State game – the first post-man off the bench, followed by 6-8, 228-pound sophomore Caleb Forrest.

Cowgill (6-11, 210) is a versatile player with great finesse but not a physical force. Clark is tough-nosed but, at 6-6 and 220 pounds, not particularly large for the paint wars and also considered more of a scorer.

More time for Baynes and Henry – and possibly Harmeling, a born leader with some fight underneath – would necessarily mean fewer minutes for Cowgill and/or Clark.

REBOUNDING WASN'T THE only concern on Bennett's mind Tuesday. Overall, he said, "We did not play well (against Boise State). They probably, in a sense, outplayed us for the majority of the game, and maybe deserved to win it.

"But that is a step in the right direction -- that we finished down the stretch. Players stepped up, big plays were made -- but it doesn't excuse the poor performance we had overall," he said.

He was referring in large measure to a series of uncharacteristic breakdowns on defense.

WSU assistant coach Ben Johnson echoed those sentiments in an interview Tuesday morning.

"We have not been as sharp defensively and against Boise State we made a lot of fundamental defensive errors," said Johnson. "We've spent time this week sharpening up. We can't be loose or sloppy on either end of floor."

Bottom line, though, is that the Cougars are 6-0 for the first time since the 1993-94 – the last season they advanced to the NCAA tournament.

Although vocal about the problems he saw in Saturday's game, Bennett says he's pleased with the overall progress of the team. He cited a deep roster as one of the key factors in the early success.

"We have a bit more depth this year than we had last year," Bennett said. "There is more experience -- we have guys who are either juniors, one senior (Clark), and sophomores who have played in some games before, and we've shot the ball well so far.

"They've been in this system now for two or three years, so there's a little more familiarity with the system, and that's probably the difference right now," je said.

"We'll see (what happens_ when it gets to high-level stuff -- and not to take away from what we've done, but I just reserve my judgment until we get really cooking," Bennett added.

THE COUGARS' FAST START is in no small way connected to the changing of the guard. More specifically, Derrick Low's move from the 1 to the 2 guard, and the emergence of transfers Mac Hopson and Taylor Rochestie as bona fide point players.

"Derrick is loving life in the land of the shooting guard," quipped assistant coach Johnson. "We decided last spring to make the adjustment and its working very well. The addition of Mac and Taylor has been significant because both are truly lead guards and have been able to find Derrick, who's healthy and in a role that he's comfortable in."

Low, who started at point guard the past two seasons, missed a chunk of both campaigns with foot injuries. Now healthy and playing on the perimeter, he's thriving. He's scored in double figures every game this season and leads the Cougars in points (16.8 per game), minutes (31.2 per game) and steals (12). He's also shooting a sizzling 50 percent from three-point range, hitting 15 of 30.

THE COUGARS RETURN TO action tomorrow night (Wednesday) at home against Portland and then travel to Utah for a game Dec. 2. They're back home Dec. 5 for the annual showdown with Gonzaga.

The Cougs will have two more non-confernce games on the Palouse after that -- in Moscow against Idaho Dec. 9 and at home vs. Cal State-Northridge Dec. 16 -- before heading to Seattle Dec. 21 for the second annual Cougar Hardwood Classic at Key Arena. Tip off is at 7:30 pm. The Cougs will take on defending Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State. Click to for more details and to order tickets.

WSU begins Pac-10 play at UCLA and USC on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30.

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