Cougar Hoops: Transitions, scrappers, polls

HERE'S A PEDICTION you can take to the bank: Washington State will rank at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 in offensive rebounding this season. And that's mostly a good thing, because the Cougs' stifling defense is predicated on shutting down transition baskets. Meanwhile, the Pac-10 media poll was released today. Where did the Cougs land?

In simplest terms, you can't foreclose an opponent's fast break if all your guys are going to the offensive glass.

"The Bennett system features good defense and emphasizes the importance of getting the defense set and back in transition," explains Cougar assistant coach Ben Johnson. "We put a premium on getting the defense set."

So as soon as a Cougar puts up a shot, the chess board starts moving that direction. The two guards immediately head to the defensive end of the court. A third player -– often Daven Harmeling or Kyle Weaver -– has the option of going for the rebound if he truly thinks there's a chance, otherwise he gets back on D as well. That leaves just the two WSU post players to try for the rebound.

"You can be a good offensive rebounding team or a good defensive team, but not both," says Johnson. "We're committed to eliminating easy baskets by the opposition."

That's why the Cougars gave up fewer points per game (59.5) than any team in the Pac-10 last season. Conversely, they ranked last in the conference in offensive boards.

Johnson is a true disciple of the shut-down-the-transition approach to basketball. He spent four years as a standout guard under Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay, served for seven years as a WGB assistant under Bennett's successor (and current WSU director of player development) Mike Heideman, and now enters his fourth season of Bennett ball at WSU.

Still, the offensive glass isn't to be forsaken. Johnson said the Cougs worked to improve their offensive rebounding during the summer tour to Australia and New Zealand. In addition, there's junior forward Caleb Forrest, who figures to pick up some of Ivory Clark's old minutes. "Caleb has an ability to slither inside, he's very aggressive on the offensive boards," says Johnson.

The Cougars open the season with an exhibition game against Central Washington Sunday and then start the regular season next Friday night (Nov. 9) when they host Eastern Washington. There's work to be done at the defense end of the court between now and then, Johnson says.

"Overall, I think we're a little farther ahead on offense than we were last year at this point, but on defense we're at the same stage or maybe a little behind where we were ... Committing, as a team, to our defensive principals is key. Defensive intensity is an area we need to improve on."

NOTABLE HOOP NOTES:

  • The approxomately 4,000 seats WSU has blocked for season ticketholders are nearly sold out, WSU reports. Only 200 remain. Single-game tickets went on sale last Sunday and the Cougar-Husky game on March 8 has been popular –- just 100 single-game tickets remain for that contest. For season tickets or single-game tickets, call 800-GO-COUGS from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. PT, Monday-Friday, or log onto www.wsucougars.com.

  • Junior forward Daven Harmeling, the Cougs' most accurate 3-point shooter last season, has looked sharp in practice sessions, but not just shooting the ball. He's getting open and rebounding nicely. He's also clearly a team leader.

  • Senior center Chris Henry, plagued by injuries much of his career, is healthy and doing what he does best: setting excellent screens, banging on defense and blocking shots.

  • While the youngsters on the Cougar roster are mostly getting schooled by the veterans, it's apparent through two weeks of practices that they're all scrappers. To a player -– including 210-pound center Charlie Enquist who gives up 50 pounds to Henry and 60 to Aron Baynes –- they're not afraid to poke their noses into heavy traffic and mix things up.

  • True freshman Stephen Sauls has shown a knack for getting his hands on loose balls, and second-year freshman Thomas Abercrombie is showing some real athleticism as he frequently will jump above his defender to make shots.

    THE PAC-10 MEDIA POLL last year, as selected by media members who regularly cover the league, had the Cougs dead last in the 10-member conference. This year, coming off a 26-win campaign with nearly every key player returning, Washington State is slotted No. 2 behind UCLA. The Cougs even picked up one first place vote.

    It's the highest placing for the Cougars since the inagural media poll in 1992-93. Washington State's previous best was at No. 4 in 1995-96, when the Cougs went 18-11, (9-9) to finish seventh in the league standings.

    THE 2007-08 PAC-10 MEN'S BASKETBALL MEDIA POLL  

    Team                       Pts.
    1. UCLA (33)               339
    2. Washington State (1)    273
    3. Oregon                  240
    4. Arizona                 238
    5. Stanford                205
    6. USC                     184
    7. California              140
    8. Washington              132
    9. Arizona State            81
    10. Oregon State            38


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