Shove, hold, grab: Bennett on life Down Under

IT'S A DIFFERENT brand of basketball Down Under. And while the Cougs went 4-2 on their recent exhibition tour through New Zealand and Australia with a pair of one-point defeats, the value of the trek was measured far beyond any bottom line, won-loss tally. Cougar hoops coach Tony Bennett talks to CF.C about what was learned, who stepped up, what the Cougs did and didn't prepare for, and much more.

There were any number of positives for the Cougs following the trip, said Bennett, that look to pay dividends next season -- dealing with a 24-second shot clock and how to effectively run the Cougar offense in that short a time, the mental and physical challenges presented in playing six games in 12 days, the different types of adversity faced on the mother of all road trips.

But there was one area Bennett identified that offered up the biggest benefit.

With Australia's national team, the Boomers, Bennett estimated there are three or four players who will be on the Aussie Olympic team, and they mostly range in ages 23-26 years old. And with Australia's top pro team, the Sydney Kings, while they usually have two imports, they did play 8 of their 9 top national players, with an age range of 25-32 years. The Cougs were going up against men, and the play reflected that.

"What I thought the best thing for our players to experience, and compete against, was the 'physical-ness' of how they play over there," said Bennett. "The officials there do let so much shoving, holding and grabbing go on away from the ball, it's just how they play."

Why was that important? Because as magical as last season's rise was, from perennial cellar dweller to becoming a force in the Pac-10 and going to the NCAA tourney as a No. 3 seed -- as good as the Cougs were last year, they can get better. There are more areas of "Bennett Ball" the Cougars still have to master.

In that sense, the trip was manna from heaven -- affording the Cougs the challenge of being able to execute with guys hanging all over you. At a critical juncture, having the opportunity to drive and hit a key bucket when it's a dead-drop certainty you're going to get checked hard enough to end up well out of bounds sitting on your wallet.

"I thought the 'physical-ness' is one of the areas we need to keep addressing with our team. It takes some getting used to, and I thought we did adjust as time went on. But it was very beneficial to play against guys who were very physical with us. I thought that in and of itself was very important, to try and execute against those kinds of circumstances," said Bennett.

WITH THE TOUR coming three months after the Cougars played their last game, it might have been expected to see one or two players bring their A-games while the rest struggled to find a consistent rhythm. That wasn't the case.

In a way, said Bennett, the tour was a microcosm of the season, with different guys stepping up on different nights. Robbie Cowgill, for example, was among those who initially took a couple games to find his rhythm, recording a pair of double-doubles along the way.

"Cowgill, he finished the tour strong," said Bennett. "He struggled a little early with the bumping and the physical-ness and I thought he adjusted well. Derrick (Low) had some monster games. He was tremendous in stretches and Kyle (Weaver)had a couple of big games, too.

"Daven (Harmeling) stepped up and had some big games when we needed it as did (Aron) Baynes. Baynes was pretty consistent on the glass the whole tournament. Different guys at different times, and Taylor (Rochestie) had some good games."

"Mainly, it was those top six guys, they really were the key guys and all at different times. And I think that's positive, you want them to all click at the right time," said Bennett.

Baynes in particular put on a show on the glass, grabbing 17 rebounds against Australia's national team and 15 boards in another outing, while scoring 22 and 15 points, respectively, in those contests. It was his 16-point performance in the tour finale that may have been his best game, however, as he hit 7-of-9 from the floor with seven rebounds.

"Aron's parents surprised him the night before the first game, and they saw him play five or maybe all six games. He really played well in front of them and for us. He really established himself as a physical presence on the glass," said Bennett.

BY DESIGN, in the 10 practices leading up to the tour, defense, the hallmark of the Cougar team, was not the primary focus of preparation.

"I thought we struggled a little defensively against the (Sydney Kings) We're going to work extremely hard on that in the fall and in the season but we tried to focus more on some offensive things and some ball handling things," said Bennett. "I think it showed what we worked on and what we didn't work on. It was a revealing trip on where we're strong at, and then also the areas we have to work on.

"They're very smart, they're very skilled. Any area you make a mistake on defensively, they make you pay. They space you and they all can shoot."

While Bennett would have liked to have won every game, as any coach would, the most valuable goals were indeed realized on the exhibition tour.

"I wouldn't have put too much stock into it if we were 3-3, 6-0 or 4-2," said Bennett. "I think we learned some things, I think we played good ball in stretches --- and we came away with stuff to work on for next year. To be competitive against a couple of the teams we played, and at this time of the year, that was a positive thing for us, it really was."

For more on the Cougs' tour, check out Cougar Notebook: Down under

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