Bennett stays calm amid fan hand-wringing

PULLMAN -- The good ship Cougar has hit some rocky waters, but the skipper is poised as ever. After Washington State's losing "streak" stretched to a "season-high" two consecutive games Saturday in an overtime loss to Stanford, the panic expressed by some fans reached epidemic proportions. Coach Tony Bennett stayed calm, however.

"Well," Bennett said dryly, "we've got an easy one coming up Thursday, so we should be OK."

Bennett, of course, was joking. Thursday's opponent is fifth-ranked UCLA (7:30 p.m. FSN), a clear-cut favorite to win the Pac-10 regular-season title for the third straight year after finishing the first half of league play in first place at 8-1.

Losses to California and Stanford have dropped the Cougars into a third-place tie with Arizona and USC (Saturday's guest at 12:30 p.m. on ABC) at 5-4. At the risk of sending WSU fans reaching for their oxygen masks, it's worth noting that no Pac-10 team with a .500 or worse league record has ever been invited to the NCAA tournament -- and the Pac-10 might be deeper and better than ever before.

"You're looking at the best league in the country," Bennett said.

The Cougars beat USC soundly in Los Angeles last month, but the athletic young Trojans are gaining experience and are the only Pac-10 team with a win over UCLA to their credit.

UCLA absolutely toyed with Washington State most of the way last month before a flurry of 3-pointers late in the game permitted the Cougars to save face. The rally should give the Cougars more confidence in the rematch, but even highly demanding UCLA coach Ben Howland rates the Bruins' last two games as their best of the year, including a thorough thumping of an Arizona squad that dominated WSU.

"They play with a chip on their shoulders; the way you're supposed to play," Arizona coach Kevin O'Neill said after losing at UCLA on Saturday.

"I think we're very good right now," UCLA freshman sensation Kevin Love said, "but I think we can be great."

Yikes. The Cougars might gain some comfort from knowing that UCLA starting forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is questionable for Thursday with a sprained ankle suffered Saturday, but California and Stanford were both missing a key starter when they whacked the Cougars last week

Lost amidst all the blown free throws at crunch time in the Stanford game was the fact that WSU made just four turnovers in a 45-minute game. That's a season low for a team ranked third in the nation with just 10.3 turnovers per game.

The Cougars also were encouraged by their defense against Stanford. WSU's "help" defense, a Dick and Tony Bennett staple, was at its clawing, suffocating best much of the way.

"A very good defensive effort for the most part," Bennett said.

Bennett reserved special praise for the defense of forward Robbie Cowgill. The lanky senior has played more aggressively at both ends of the floor in three games since his 82-game streak of starts was interrupted for one game at Arizona two weeks ago.

"He worked his tail off," Bennett said after the Stanford game. "He's stepped up his game the last couple games when he was challenged."

Bennett also is challenging Aron Baynes. The big center was counted on heavily to guard 7-foot Stanford star Brook Lopez, but Baynes drew a foul after 13 seconds and played just 15 ineffective minutes before fouling out.

"I expect more from Aron," Bennett said. "We needed him."

Now Baynes faces the formidable task of guarding the 6-10 Love, who leads UCLA with 17.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and a league-leading 61.1 field-goal shooting percentage.

WSU's perimeter players also figure to have their hands full Thursday. Josh Shipp (14.5 ppg) is a deadly 3-point shooter, and O'Neill -- a former NBA coach -- rates point guard-wing Russell Westbrook (12.0 ppg) a better pro prospect than Love. Westbrook averages 5.0 assists, second in the Pac-10 to the 5.2 of WSU's Taylor Rochestie.

Love and USC guard O.J. Mayo are expected to turn pro after their freshman seasons, so this figures be their only trip to Pullman. Both games this week are sold out, and Mayo -- second in the league with 20.1 ppg -- is definitely worth the price of admission.

Of course, the Cougars generally put on a pretty good show all by their lonesome. They slipped from first to third in the nation in defense and from ninth to 17th in the polls this week, but who would have dreamed of WSU living in such lofty company two years ago?

Whether WSU has what it takes to beat the Bruins (winners of seven straight over the Cougars) or the Trojans (5-1 since starting out 0-3 in the Pac-10) remains to be seen. The Cougars know one thing for certain: They must handle late-game pressure infinitely better than they did when clanking free throws down the stretch Saturday.

"I think," Kyle Weaver summed up, "our butts got tight."

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