Bennett paints undefeated Cougs as 'dogs

WASHINGTON STATE is unbeaten in the Pac-10, ranked fourth in the nation and loaded with experience. USC is winless in the Pac-10, unranked and loaded with inexperience. Only Tony Bennett, the perpetual underdog, can make this scenario sound like a potential disadvantage heading into Thursday's game in L.A. Then again, USC's 9-5 record includes four-point losses to No. 4 Kansas and No. 2 Memphis.

"USC, their talent level is so high," the Washington State coach said Tuesday at one of his two morning press conferences. "They went on the road and lost two tough games … so there's going to be a big-time sense of urgency on USC's part."

Ya think? The omni-youthful, omni-athletic Trojans were so peeved about their losses at California and Stanford last week that they held a team meeting Sunday, then spent an entire two-hour practice Monday with lids on the baskets to emphasize rebounding.

An 0-3 start in conference play might be fatal to the title hopes of the Trojans just two weeks into the league schedule. The Cougars might well find themselves alone atop the Pac-10 standings by Saturday if they can sweep USC and No. 5 UCLA for just the second time in school history.

"You have to play at a very high level to even have a chance in games like this," Bennett said.

USC (9-5, 0-2 Pac-10) has no seniors and often starts three freshmen, so the Cougars (13-0, 1-0) like to think they have an advantage with three seniors and two juniors starting.

"I'd rather have a senior guarding a freshman than a freshman guarding a freshman," Bennett points out.

That brings us to the key matchup Thursday (7 p.m., FSN): Washington State senior guard Kyle Weaver, an NBA prospect and arguably the Pac-10's top perimeter defender, opposite USC freshman guard O.J. Mayo, an NBA superstar in the making in the eyes of many observers.

"He's so athletic and physical," Bennett said of the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Mayo. "He's very complete."

Weaver ate up 3-point specialist Ryan Appleby in WSU's conference opener at Washington last Saturday, but Mayo is infinitely more talented and versatile than Appleby. The semi-legendary "help" team defense system installed at WSU by Dick Bennett and still emphasized by son Tony could be essential if the Cougars are going to -- please, Lord, forgive me -- hold the Mayo.

"It has to be our team defense," Bennett said earlier this week. "You can't say, ‘We're going to leave you (Weaver) on an island to guard him.'"

Bennett hastens to add, "They've got other great players." Mayo has taken more than twice as many shots (almost 17 per game) as any of his teammates and leads USC with 20.1 points per game, but three other Trojans score in double figures, including 6-8 frosh forward Daven Jefferson. Rugged Taj Gibson averages 8.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots.

USC coach Tim Floyd yanked Jefferson out of the starting lineup last Saturday at Stanford, possibly due to a costly technical foul that Jefferson picked up for shoving a Cal player late in the game Thursday. The Trojans can use Jefferson's 11.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, because they barely outscore WSU (68.9-68.5), shoot far worse from the field (46.8-50.1 percent) and rank last in the league in rebounding margin (plus-0.7) and turnovers (16.0).

The Trojans gave up 92 points at California (when Mayo scored 34 points), but held Stanford to 52 points and 27 percent shooting. The Cougars are the only Pac-10 team with a better field-goal shooting percentage defense mark than USC (36.9-38.0), but the NCAA Division I scoring defense leaders from WSU yield 11 fewer points (49.8-60.9).

The Cougars edged USC twice in the regular season last year (including a double-overtime thriller in Pullman) before the Trojans reaped revenge in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament. UCLA, on the other hand, has swept WSU three straight years since suffering the only home loss to WSU in 50 meetings.

The fifth-ranked Bruins (14-1, 2-0) mirror USC in that they have four players scoring in double figures and the leader is a freshman (Kevin Love at 16.5 ppg). Like WSU, however, defense is the Bruins' calling card.

"I just like the way they play," Bennett said.

Love, who could be headed to the NBA next year with Mayo, is a muscular 6-10, 270-pound center like WSU's Aron Baynes. Sutures and bandages may come in handy when those two battle under the baskets Saturday (11:30 a.m., FSN).

"There'll be a lot of beef banging," Bennett predicted.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Bennett said freshman guard Stephen Sauls will remain hospitalized indefinitely and undergo more tests after suffering a concussion and blacking out Monday when he was elbowed in the head at practice. "He's doing OK," Bennett said. One media report said Sauls stopped breathing at one point -- he quickly resumed moving after trainer Nick Gallotto said he blew one breath in Sauls' mouth during a brief CPR effort -- but Bennett said that was not a certainty. Bennett said he doubts Sauls will make the Los Angeles trip.

  • Bennett called Daven Harmeling "a warrior" after the junior forward returned to the lineup Saturday just two weeks after breaking the right thumb on his shooting hand. Harmeling played with a splint and padding covered with plenty of tape, but he nailed two of his three shots (both 3-pointers) after going 5-for-26 from trey land before his injury. "We were kidding him: ‘Let's look at your shooting percentage with the tape and padding and without it,'" Bennett said. "He's just a winner. He's a tough kid."

  • Bennett said Harmeling's surprisingly quick return "makes it more unlikely" that promising true freshman guard Abe Lodwick will be activated this season.

  • UCLA has won seven straight since a two-point loss to No. 8 Texas.

  • After starting 6-1, USC has gone 3-4, including four-point losses to No. 4 Kansas and No. 2 Memphis.


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