Where do Cougs stand? Harmeling talks frankly

NEWARK, N.J. -- Daven Harmeling is the son of a preacher. Devoutly religious. Ultimate team player. Model citizen. If Harmeling has a weakness -- besides his somewhat limited athleticism, as he would be the first to tell you -- it is that he tends to speak with all the subtlety of a punch to the groin. Harmeling gives it to you straight, and he's more than willing to live with the consequences.

Thus, when a reporter asked Daven Harmeling if his Washington State Cougars are ready for their first real test Friday against unbeaten Mississippi State in the Legends Classic, Harmeling refused to play the "rah-rah" card without -- in his estimation -- just cause.

"To be honest, I still don't know," the fifth-year senior forward said. "There's been some positives in the four games we've played. "You think you've done well, then you look at film (game tapes), it's like, gosh, you can't have that breakdown against a big-time team. They'll really make you pay for those mistakes.

"I think we've got an uphill battle against Mississippi State unless we shore up a lot of things. We've got a long way to go."

Ah, spoken like a true Tony Bennett disciple. Bennett, WSU's phenomenally successful coach (56-17 in two seasons), forever preaches to his troops that it is imperative to never get too high or too low.

Oh, and one other thing: Don't even think about being satisfied until you've done your best to get the job done, and to get the job done just right.

The Cougars have been utterly dominant in four blowout victories, but Bennett and his players are quick to acknowledge the opposition was suspect. Bennett wanted to ease his talented freshmen into the college game, and the plan has worked perfectly to date for the frosh and the team as a whole.

"I think they've done what they needed to do," Bennett said. "I think they've played solid basketball. They've showed pretty good scrap and beat the teams they were supposed to beat.

"I'm pleased with where we're at. There's a couple things I'm unsure of, but the only way I'm going to know about those is to play Mississippi State and whoever else."

"Whoever else" will be fourth-ranked Pittsburgh or explosive Texas Tech on Saturday.

The 4-0 Cougars, who crushed Fairleigh Dickinson 55-33 Nov. 18 in Pullman in their only Legends Classic preliminary-round game, take on 5-0 Mississippi State at 2:30 p.m. PST Friday. Pitt (5-0) and Texas Tech (also 5-0) follow at approximately 5. The four teams were guaranteed berths in the Legends "semifinals" regardless of how they fared earlier.

Friday's winners play for the title on Saturday after Friday's losers tangle at 2:30. All four games will be televised on HDNet from the 18,500-seat Prudential Center in Newark, across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

WSU center Aron Baynes said the three other Legends teams "probably have a little more athleticism than us, but I think that's why we buy into the defensive system more.

"If we buy into what the coaches preach to us, we're gong to be able to stick it out with anyone in the country."

MISSISSIPPI STATE (5-0)
The Bulldogs feature junior forward Jarvis Varnado, the National Defensive Player of the Year last season. He leads the nation in blocked shots for the second straight year.

Varnado, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound leaper, averages a whopping 7.4 blocks, 12.8 rebounds (fourth in the nation through Tuesday) and 12 points per game. The Bulldogs, who advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season out of the Southeastern Conference, led the nation in rebounding through Tuesday with 47.4 per game.

Ravern Johnson and Barry Stewart are quality 3-point shooters who average approximately 12 points per game. MSU is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and holding opponents to 31 percent, and coach Rick Stansbury knows the Cougars can play defense, too.

"They're one of the best defensive teams in the country year in and year out," Stansbury said.

PITTSBURGH (5-0)
The Panthers, a typical Big East Conference team, have plenty of athleticism and love to mix it up physically. Pitt is shooting 54 percent from the floor and has shot nearly twice as many free throws as WSU (104-57).

All-America candidate Sam Young, a 6-6, 215-pound forward, averages 19.4 points and 5.2 rebounds. DeJuan Blair, a 6-7, 265-pound forward who missed Tuesday's game with a sore knee that does not appear serious, averages 17.5 ppg and 13.3 rpg (third nationally through Tuesday). Point guard Levance Fields averages 13.6 ppg and 7.6 assists (fifth nationally through Tuesday).

Pitt reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March. The Big East is widely regarded as the best conference in the country this year.

TEXAS TECH (5-0)
The Red Raiders ranked second in the nation through Tuesday with 101.4 ppg, highlighted by a 167-115 win over run-and-gun East Central (Okla.), a Division II team. Tech also ranked fourth in 3-point shooting percentage (48.1) and was tied for fifth in 3-pointers made per game (10).

Alan Voskuil, a 6-3 senior, leads Tech with 16 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and 54 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Backcourt partner John Roberson also averages 16 points.

Pat Knight, who played and coached for his famous/infamous father at Indiana and followed him to Texas Tech, replaced Bob when the elder Knight retired from coaching last February. The Raiders finished 16-15 last season, losing in the first round of the Big 12 Conference Tournament.

WASHINGTON STATE (4-0)
The Cougars are holding opponents to 28 percent shooting from the field and 39 points per game and winning by an average of 30 points. Scoring and playing time has been spread out in the routs.

"They played hard," Bennett said. "They showed they could shoot the ball, and they share the ball well.

"We showed, at times, we're a little shaky on the glass. That would be a concern. How will be handle the quickness and athleticism (of future opponents)?"

Freshman guard Klay Thompson leads three Cougars in double figures with 12.5 ppg, Point guard Taylor Rochestie averages 11.5 and 6.5 apg. Baynes checks in at 10.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg heading into Friday's showdown with Mississippi State.

"I think we're all looking forward to the challenge," Thompson said, "especially from a good team from the SEC. That'll be a lot of fun."

TOURNEY TIDBITS:

The $375 million Prudential Center is the cornerstone of the downtown revitalization in Newark. The arena is home to Seton Hall basketball and the NHL's New Jersey Devils .... Texas beat Tennessee for the inaugural Legends Classic championship last year. Second-day attendance was announced at 4,327. Judging from the fact that tournament officials are selling 2-for-1 tickets and not releasing information on advance sales, it would seem likely that crowds will again be small ... Pitt is the only Top 25 team in the tournament, and WSU is the only other team that received votes in either major poll this week. The Cougars are 38th in The Associated Press (media) poll and 31st in the USA Today/ESPN (coaches) poll .... A victory over Pitt in the title game might be enough to vault the winners into the Top 25.

For other recent Cougar basketball news, scroll down a wee bit and click on the Nov. 26 story "Cougar Hoops Notebook."

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