Cougs talk hoops from the floor in Key

SEATTLE - Tony Bennett and the Washington State men's basketball team were looking a little sick when they arrived at KeyArena late Friday afternoon to practice and get ready for Saturday's game here against Montana State. And it had nothing to do with last Wednesday's 74-52 loss to Gonzaga.

The team's flight was delayed more than an hour out of Pullman and the Cougs coming to Seattle flew into weather so rough that some players were still feeling the effects of the heavy turbulence more than an hour later.

"I was feeling pretty sick, but now I'm okay," freshman guard Klay Thompson said. "It was scary. I've had worse flights, but that was right up there."

WSU, which is 6-3 with losses in three of its last four games - all against Top 25 teams - hopes to rebound against a 4-3 Montana State team in the fourth annual Cougar Hardwood Classic. It's not a game the Cougs are taking lightly.

"Montana State is having a good year and they're very well coached," Bennett said. "We're the kind of team that we can't ever look by any team. We have to come to play in every game."

If that sounds like standard coachspeak, Bennett assured that it isn't.

"There may be a few easy games on our schedule, but one of them certainly isn't Montana State. They present a terrific challenge."

BENNETT SAID THE key to the game will be how the Cougars execute.

"It's about doing what we do well," Bennett said. "Yes, we have to be aware of our opponent, but we have to learn the lessons of what we did well in the Gonzaga and Baylor games. We're still working on rotations and what is our exact way to play to get good quality shots."

One big key for the offense is point guard Taylor Rochestie, who has been struggling with his shot and made only 28 of his 86 shots this season.

"There's been a lot of talk about it, but in the end you just have to put the ball in the basket," Rochestie said. "I'm getting the shots I want. It feels like I'm taking more open shots than I did last year. I just have to put them in and hopefully that will start tomorrow night."

Even though his shot has been off, Rochestie said there are signs that they are about to start to fall.

"The shots are on line," Rochestie said. "They're missing either short or long. Those are the kind of misses you want. You just have to keep shooting. The only time I think about it is when I'm asked about it. You know, the shots aren't falling and hopefully they will soon."

WSU trailed by only a point to No. 4 Gonzaga early in the second half, but were no match for the Bulldogs after that.

"We kind of have a fine line on which we play," Rochestie said. "We can play with the best in the country or we can also get beaten pretty bad by the best in the country and you saw that in the two halves of the Gonzaga game. If we play the right way, we have a chance."

Rochestie said playing in Seattle and at KeyArena is always a big thrill for WSU.

"It's important for me to get back on track and for this team to get back on track and let's hope it starts tomorrow night," Rochestie said. "We're excited to be here and play in front of our west coast fans. It's another opportunity for us to improve against a good opponent."

ROCHESTIE SAID IT'S far too early to know whether this team can make it back to the NCAA tournament.

"It's too much for us to even think about it right now," Rochestie said. "Obviously that's our goal. It takes a lot of steps, especially for a young team. We're just trying to take it practice by practice. In the Bennett system, it all starts with defense. We need to play a more sound game."

Bennett agreed that there was much to learn from the Gonzaga game.

"That is what playing a rigid nonconference schedule is for," Bennett said. "It really reveals where we need to improve. You can't hide in games like that and in that second half they certainly exposed us."

Bennett said the entire idea is to be battle tested with a young team when they open play in the Pac-10.

"Playing in that type of game was a new experience for a lot of our guys." Bennett said. "It was pretty fast and furious. We have to keep getting them used to it. That's the process we're going through right now. We're kind of finding our identity. We got ourselves in a couple of rough spots against Gonzaga and that's always sobering."

The two biggest concerns are defense and turnovers.

"We didn't take care of the basketball or get back on defense," Bennett said. "We did in the first half, but in the second didn't really get back on defense. We got caught up in the pace of the game. We can't beat a team like Gonzaga in their kind of game when there are a lot of possessions. We need better shot selection and better decision-making and that's something we're working on."

BENNETT SAID THE key for WSU is to forget all about last year's success.

"I hope our older guys aren't trying to carry last year's expectations," Bennett said. "We've worked hard and established our program, but this is a new team and a new year and I think there is a tendency for the players to think they have to keep it going and live up to last year's team. We don't have the same kind of players. I just want our team, whatever it is, to play as well as we can. If you're holding onto what we did last year, that can cause some distractions."

Bennett believes his team will improve by the time the Pac-10 season rolls around.

"We have limitations, we realize that, but we also have some strengths, too," Bennett said. "We'll just keep working. That's our way."

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Bennett confirmed he was still searching for the right role for Caleb Forrest, a 6-foot-8 senior who has seen inconsistent playing time so far this season.

"He did a nice job in the Gonzaga game," Bennett said. "We thought it was a difficult matchup for him in the Baylor game. He certainly needs to be part of the equation. He's such a scrappy, tough kid. I want to find ways he can step on the floor and help us. He's a leader for us and he definitely needs to be in there. We need to keep looking at matchups with him."

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NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Thompson, who has started every game and is WSU's second-leading scorer averaging 10.8 points a game, was actually kind of glad to be briefly leaving the Palouse in advance of an arctic blast that was expected to blanket the entire state, including at this time of year, a normally rainy Seattle. "I heard it started snowing today, so I haven't really had a taste of it yet. I'm not really looking forward to going back to that," said Thompson. According to the latest weather forecasts, he might actually get his first taste of it in Seattle this afternoon before the Cougs head back home.

  • WSU is 3-0 in previous Hardwood Classic games. Last year WSU beat The Citadel 67-45. Including games against the University of Washington, WSU has won six in a row in Seattle. In previous Hardwood Classic games, WSU beat San Diego State and Utah.


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