Bennett: Transition shut down is Cougs' key

SPEND A FEW MINUTES talking with Cougar head basketball coach Tony Bennett and the outlook is clear: WSU's path to the post-season runs through the team's ability to get back quickly on defense and limit the opponent's chances for swift trips to the basket. So if you're wondering why the Cougs' rotation leans heavily on six players and expands modestly to eight, look no farther than defense.

"Our system is built on getting the defense set, not giving up baskets in transition," Bennett told on Wednesday. "We have to do that to be successful in this league. I'm glad the so-called experts are recognizing the Pac-10 as the toughest conference in the nation, but that means every single night is a battle."

And so it is that the minutes Bennett was spreading broadly across his roster for much of the non-conference schedule are now much more concentrated.

"You have to see what each game requires, but we've narrowed the rotation now that we're in conference play," he said. "The heavy minutes are going to the guys with experience, who know the system and who get back defensively."

Getting back defensively.

It's the key to hardcourt life on the Palouse.

WSU is 12-2 and rated No. 31 in both polls in large part because they're so good at shutting off the fastbreak.

The Cougs gave up just 55 points last week at both UCLA and USC. For perspective on that feat, consider that UCLA averages 78 points per game –- and put 94 on the board last week against Washington –- while USC averages 70.

Leading the way for the Cougars in their stingy efforts were juniors Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low. In the two games, Weaver played 75 out of 80 possible minutes and Low 73. Daven Harmeling played 62 minutes, Robbie Cowgill 60 and Nikola Koprivica 52.

That's five players devouring huge minutes.

Notably, four of them are from the same recruiting class –- the first one assembled by Tony and his dad Dick when they came to Pullman in 2003. Those athletes are now living testament to the family pledge at the time to build the program on a foundation of youngsters who fit the system and will eventually mature into bona fide contenders.

The only outlier in the group is the 6-6, 211-pound Koprivica, a highly talented true freshman from Serbia. He was on track to redshirt but given his outstanding work in practice -– and the Cougars' need for more rebounding -– he debuted seven games into the season has now started three in a row.

"He's 18-years-old, the youngest guy on the team. He didn't even get to campus until the first week of school, but is starting to get his body right and his legs under him," Bennett said. "He's smart, has a great feel for the game, is tough and has good size. I'm really looking forward to watching his career develop."

Beyond the starting five, forward Ivory Clark and center Aron Baynes are taking up the balance of the Cougars' minutes with assistance from point guard Taylor Rochestie.

The 6-10, 270-pound Baynes is getting back to form after ankle surgery shelved him for six months.

"Aron played a lot down the stretch at UCLA," Bennett said. "He's an excellent defensive rebounder. He's so big he can block out two people at once. He also occupies the other team so our other players can rebound. He'll continue to get more minutes."

One Cougar whose floor time is going the other direction is point guard Mac Hopson, a transfer from North Idaho College. He started the first six games of the season, averaging a little more than 28 minutes per outing. Since then, he saw no time in three contests -– Gonzaga, UCLA and USC -– and averaged 15 minutes in the five others where he did play.

"Mac is a first-year player who's still adjusting," Bennett said. "I know it can be frustrating when you're not playing. I tell everyone to stay positive and be a great teammate because you just don't know when your chance is going to come -– when it does, you have to be ready."

Bennett noted that the emergence of Koprivica and the steady play of Rochestie, a former Conference USA All-Freshman performer at Tulane, have taken some of Hopson's time.

With Hopson's reduced role, Low or Weaver bring the ball up the court. In the set offense, Weaver tends to play the point and in the set defense Low plays the point.

• Senior point guard Antonio Chavers is still working to clear up academic issues so the timeline for his return to the sidelines is uncertain, Bennett said. Chavers played in 25 games last season and started seven, but has been ineligible all of this season and no longer is on scholarship.

• When the Cougars play No. 7 Arizona this Saturday it won't be the first time Bennett, in his first year as head coach, has taken on legendary Wildcat coach Lute Olsen. In 2003-04, in Pullman, Dick Bennett took ill with the flu about 90-minutes before tipoff with the Wildcats, so Tony stepped in as head coach for the game. Arizona, ranked No. 9 at the time, eked out a 61-57 win.

• Don't look for a lot of scoring tonight when the Cougar host Arizona State. The Sun Devils play a deliberate, defensive-focused style of ball similar to the Cougars.

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