Bennett: Just play good ball and then see

IF EVER THERE was an example of how important it was for the Pac-10 Conference to restart a post-season basketball tournament with a major carrot at stake, which it did in 2002, this year's Washington State Cougars would appear to fill the bill.

As losers of five of their past seven games, the Cougars (14-13 overall, 6-9 Pac-10) would merely be playing out their season against the Arizona teams this week in Pullman and at Washington on March 7 if there was no Pac-10 tournament.

But because they beat UCLA in the Bruins' Pauley Pavilion, 82-81, last Saturday at least two persons -- Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated and Andy Katz of -- have publicly suggested that WSU might wiggle into the NCAA tournament.

And head coach Tony Bennett, while non-committal on that topic in his Tuesday teleconference, nonetheless pointed to the hope that the Pac-10 tourney offers his up-and-down club.

As has been his stance all season long, Bennett didn't talk about at-large scenarios and how they might affect his team.

"I've said it for the past five months: I just want to play good basketball and that will take us to where we need to be, if that's the post-season or not," Bennett said.

"It's not so much ‘can we get into the NCAA tournament' it's can we play a level of basketball that gives us a chance to be successful."

But, he reminded reporters that, in effect, there's always the Pac-10 tournament -- "there's always that chance."

The tournament winner, not the regular-season champion(s), earns the Pac-10's automatic berth in the 65-team NCAA field.

Although he didn't say it, Bennett's message was clear: By becoming only the second Cougar team ever to beat UCLA in Los Angeles is it so outrageous to think about WSU winning the conference tournament? In Los Angeles?

He pointed out that his Cougars showed resiliency by first fighting back before losing at USC.

"And then we went into UCLA -- we weren't great defensively – but they (Cougars) played with reckless abandon and did something not a lot of people have done here (at WSU)."

If the NCAA opportunity doesn't work out, Bennett would be receptive to an NIT bid.

"For the NCAA tournament, I don't know how many wins you have to have," Bennett said. "For the NIT … I just want to play good basketball and perhaps that will give us a chance to do something like that."

Unless there is an NIT home game for WSU, four Cougar seniors -- Daven Harmeling, Caleb Forrest, Aron Baynes and Taylor Rochestie -- will be playing their final games on Friel Court this week, against Arizona on Thursday (6 p.m. PT, FSN) and against Arizona State on Saturday (2 p.m., FSN).

Bennet talked about all four.

About Harmeling, who has struggled with his shooting (34.5 percent) this season, "There's a bigger picture going on with him," Bennett said. "He has perspective. Yes, of course he's frustrated with his season and I wish he was shooting the ball at a higher clip and doing some things better.

"But in the long run I'm so pleased about how he's handled it. And the season is not over yet. There's a lot of fight left in him. I think he'll have a chance to play a prominent role in a couple of these games coming up"

Bennett described Forrest as "probably the toughest kid we've had in our program since I've been here. He just shows up and competes and you never question if he's giving you all he's got. One of the more unorthodox players but strangely effective."

Baynes, said Bennett, has improved in many ways and if he gave anyone the impression that he's got a bad attitude, forget it.

"He just gets so discouraged and is so hard on himself," Bennett said. "He wants to win so bad. He wants to help the team. He'll buy into screening all day just to get those shooters open and never says a word when he doesn't get the ball inside. He'll do whatever you ask."

Bennett said it's no coincidence that ever since Rochestie has been a Cougar "the program has been on solid ground.

" He's brought a confident, winning attitude. And he's a fierce competitor. And he's a great kid. He's the kind of kid that makes, I think, universities proud whether you win or lose."

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