Commentary: It's Coug D vs. Pitt road graders

NEWARK, N.J. -- Washington State forward Daven Harmeling, seated close to the basketball floor of the glossy new Prudential Center, had just one question after watching the Pittsburgh Panthers body-slam their way up and down the floor against Texas Tech. "Is that their football team out there?" Harmeling asked innocently.

The fourth-ranked Panthers, loaded with thick, muscular players with talent and the swagger that seems to be inbred in Big East Conference teams, provide the opposition for Washington State Saturday night in the championship game of the Legends Classic.

"Y'all got a chance against Pitt," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said after the Cougars belted his lean, young team around Friday. "You've got to make shots."

Well, obviously. But the real key to WSU's chances might be the Cougars' ability to make the Panthers miss shots.

"That's probably the best defensive team I've ever played against," Jarvis Varnado said.

Who? Oh, Varnado is only the reigning National Defensive Player of the Year, and he was plenty impressed when the Cougars held his team to 33 percent shooting. After all, the Bulldogs came into the game shooting nearly 50 percent and averaging 83 points during their 5-0 start.

Varnado was just one of the reed-thin Bulldogs who were outmuscled by the Cougars on Friday night in WSU‘s 63-52 win. Aron Baynes, whose chest is even thicker than his Australian accent, ruled the paint against Varnado and anyone else who dared to tread on his personal domain.

"Baynes, during the minutes he was in, was playing great," WSU point guard Taylor Rochestie said.

Indeed, Baynes scored 11 points in the first 12-plus minutes of play and finished with 17 despite foul problems that limited him to 22 minutes before he drew his fifth foul with 1:58 left.

By that time, Varnado was hidden away on the Mississippi State bench. Don't count on Pitt players slinking off into the sunset tonight, because the Panthers are typical Big East players in that they seem to thrive on contact.

Baynes, of course, is a former rugby player who can bang bodies with the best of 'em. If the men with the whistles let the boys play tonight, it could work in Baynes' favor.

Not that Baynes needs a shot in the chops to get his blood boiling. The big Aussie has gradually learned to control his temper better during his four-year stay in Pullman, but he barely controlled his fury when he let teammates have it during a time-out late in the Mississippi State game. "I was just trying to rally the troops, I guess, because we looked a little bit sluggish," Baynes said.

Coincidentally or not, the Cougars soon regained momentum and cruised home with the win. Pitt followed with an 80-67 triumph over Texas Tech. That set up a WSU-Pitt title game at approximately 5 p.m. PST. Tech and Mississippi State play in the consolation game at 2:30. Both games will be televised on HDNet.

It's unfortunate that HDNet is not available in more homes and local watering holes, because basketball fans nationwide would have enjoyed watching WSU freshman Klay Thompson make his first big splash on the national scene Friday.

Thompson led everyone with 19 points, 10 rebounds and, as usual, 0 emotion. The kid is so lacking in animation, you're tempted to poke him in the arm to make sure he's alive.

"Klay's got that poker face," Rochestie said. "He's got a poker face when we're playing and we're up 20, and he's got a poker face when it's a close game against a good team like Mississippi State."

The 6-foot-6, 187-pound Thompson is a bit on the lean side, so it will be interesting how he deals with Pitt's muscle. Win or lose, Thompson is guaranteed to answer reporter's questions with the same stoic expression he wears on the court.

"I thought we played well," Thompson said after the Mississippi State game. "There were some things we could do better.

"Defensively, we had a few lapses. Offensively, we had some lapses. Hopefully, we'll play better tomorrow."

Maybe the personable Rochestie can give Thompson a few tips on how to yak up a storm. Even on a night when he struggled mightily at times (2-for-14 shooting and four turnovers), Rochestie still did plenty of good things at both ends of the floor (five assists, four steals, five of his eight points at crunch time), then examined his performance with his usual interesting remarks to reporters.

"Sometimes shots go in, sometimes they're not," Rochestie said. "That why I love being on a team that's all about defense."

Rochestie added, "I try not to worry about it (missing shots). They say when you're missing, have selective memory. But I couldn't look back on things, because I missed all of them."

Rochestie was referring to his first 10 field-goal attempts. The quickness of MSU freshman point guard Dee Bost gave Rochestie trouble, but Rochestie held Bost to 0-for-5 shooting and five points.

"I just try not to get encouraged," Rochestie said. "I just try to help the team by being out there.

"I just try to get my hands on balls and get steals and talk to the team, just trying to lead them, being a senior."

Thompson might not ever be a vocal leader, but he left the Bulldogs speechless at times.

"He's great out there," Baynes said. "He's outstanding."

"When a play needed to be made, he made them," Rochestie said. "That was huge for us.

"Whether we can rely on him doing that all year -- I hope so. That'd be fun."

WSU coach Tony Bennett certainly had fun watching Thompson, even if it doesn't look like Thompson is having all that much fun.

"You don't see a whole lot of expression out of his face," Bennett said with a smile. "He's like Derrick that way."

Bennett was referring to Derrick Low, the four-year starter who helped transform WSU basketball from woebegone to wonderful. It remains to be seen if Thompson can eventually lift the Cougars to the next level, but if he does, watch closely to make certain he doesn't fall asleep en route.

* Bennett is 19-0 in November in three years as WSU's head coach. … The Cougars have won 21 straight nonconference games in the regular season since December 2006. The school record is 23, set in the 1930's. … First-day attendance at the second annual Legends Classic was just 3,510, even with 2-for-1 advance ticket sales made available in recent days. The 2-year-old Prudential Center seats 18,500 for basketball. … High school bands were recruited to play the fight songs of the four teams.

* Junior guard Nikola Koprivica, his knee problems a thing of the past, continues to play solidly for the Cougars. "Nikola totally stepped up," Rochestie said after the Serbia native delivered seven points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals and just one turnover in 36 minutes. … Baynes hit 8 of 10 shots -- mostly hooks and two-hand jams -- then credited WSU's guards for his big night. "They're really good at getting the ball to me at the right position," said Baynes who was interviewed after the game for an Australian radio news show.

* Derrick Low's pro basketball team in Sydney, Australia, is in danger of going under financially. Low is seventh in the league in scoring with 18.9 points per game.

Cougfan Top Stories