BENNETT: Rankings aside, Wazzu D must improve

ONE OF THE keys to Washington State's remarkable turnaround on the basketball court the past two seasons has been Tony Bennett's outright refusal to accept anything less than optimum effort at all times. The genial, easy-going image that Bennett almost invariably projects in public often gives way to a demanding, hard-nosed leader of men at practices and meetings.

That explains how the coach of the top-ranked defensive team in the nation was able to look media straight in the eye after the latest victory in a superb season and said, "We have to become a better defensive team, no question about it."

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Truth be known, the Cougars -- although universally regarded as a tremendous defensive team -- have shown chinks in the defensive armor of late. Quick guards have posed problems with penetration; athletic big men create issues down low; and depth is lacking.

"Opponents are still shooting a high percentage," Tony Bennett said.

THE PAC-10 IS regarded as the nation's best conference by many observers, but that doesn't mean Bennett has to accept the fact that WSU opponents are shooting 49.1 percent from the field in league play. That compares to 35.5 percent in nonconference games.

"We take pride in limiting looks (quality field-goal attempts), and they're getting too many looks," Bennett said.

The Cougars are yielding 62.7 points per game in the Pac-10, compared to 48.9 in nonconference games and 53.9 overall. That helps explain why Arizona students were chanting "Different schedule!" last Thursday, a dig at a weak nonleague schedule that helped the Cougars compile vastly superior team statistics to many teams that are quite comparable to WSU in skill.

ONE DEFENSIVE STAT that WSU has lagged in all season, compared to a year ago, is blocked shots. The Cougars rank 157th nationally with 3.3 blocked shots per game, compared to their No. 44 standing last season, when they averaged 4.6. The Cougars had almost twice as many blocks as their opponents (155-83); this year, the difference is just 60-44, and WSU is dead even in Pac-10 blocks (25-25) WSU lacks a springy, dominant shot blocker like Ivory Clark, who led the team a year ago with 53 blocks (1.6 per game).

Robbie Cowgill leads the team this season with 20 blocks (1.1), and Cowgill's play has been so spotty -- by his own admission -- that his 82-game string of starts came to an end last Thursday at Arizona. The 6-foot-10 senior returned to the starting lineup in Saturday's win at Arizona State and blocked two shots while playing aggressively at both ends of the floor.

Look for Bennett, his staff and his players to stress the importance of renewed vigor on defense all week in practice as the ninth-ranked Cougars prepare for home games Thursday at 7 p.m. versus California (11-7, 2-5 Pac-10) and Saturday at noon against No. 14 Stanford (5-2, 16-3). Tickets remain on sale for Thursday's game, which will not be televised, but Saturday's game on FSN is sold out.

WSU's defense will be tested Thursday by Pac-10 scoring leader Ryan Anderson. The 6-10 sophomore can nail 3-pointers and score down low, and his 21.3 scoring average ranked 15th in NCAA Division I through Sunday.

A TUCSON SPORTS radio talk show host had considerable praise for the Cougars last week, but he joked about their underwhelming physical appearance.

"They don't pass the ‘eye test,'" he said. "They look like a Frisbee football team. They look like a Hacky Sack team."

One Cougar who does pass the "eye test" is Kyle Weaver. The 6-6, 201-pound senior guard from Beloit, Wis., is a superb defender with a long, lean build and impressive quickness and leaping ability.

"Kyle Weaver will be a pro, and he could be taken in the first round," ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said recently. "I tend to think he will be a second-round selection, though.

"He can guard multiple positions, and he can handle and pass it. He is not a shooter, but he is a winner. He could be national defensive player of the year, which is a pretty meaningful award."

Weaver needs 53 points to become the 29th Cougar with 1,000 career points (teammate Derrick Low ranks 23rd with 1,059 and is just 12 back of 20th-ranked Terry Kelly). Weaver ranks fifth in WSU history in assists (396) and steals (162).

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Top 10 rankings: In addition to their No. 9 ranking in The Associated Press (media) and ESPN/USA Today (coaches) polls released Monday -- a drop from No. 6 last week in both polls -- the Cougars remain in the top 10 in three team statistics.

  • Besides holding on to the No. 1 spot in points against per game, WSU is third in turnovers (10.7) and eighth in field-goal shooting percentage (49.6). It's worth noting that Stanford is second in rebound margin (10.2), and WSU is getting outrebounded by 3.2 per game in the Pac-10.

  • Head problems: Reserve guards Jeremy Cross and Stephen Sauls missed practice Monday due to concussions suffered recently in practice. Neither made the Arizona trip. Cross was hurt last week and may return as soon as this weekend, but Sauls remains out indefinitely and may apply for a medical hardship year.


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