IF WSU UPSETS Saint Mary's tonight in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament, the box score is likely to show Wazzu winning the turnover battle. And if that's the case, the roots of the victory can be traced to a dour day in Louisiana three months ago that was followed by an impromptu middle-of-the night practice called to order by one indignant coach.
Back in December, Washington State was taking it to LSU. The Cougs were in Baton Rouge and forcing the Tigers to play at the crimson tempo. With less than nine minutes to go, the Cougars had a seven-point lead and all the momentum against the eventual SEC champion.
And then things fell apart.
Careless turnovers fueled a 24-5 closing run by LSU and Washington State dropped a frustrating 64-52 decision. Hours later, on the plane ride home, Tony Bennett
was still steaming over the 18 turnovers the Cougars had committed.
"He was ticked," remembers WSU assistant coach Matt Woodley. "We're better than that. They've been coached better than that, they've been taught better than that."
So when the bleary-eyed Cougs got off the plane at 12:30 am, their day wasn't over. Bennett marched them straight to the gym for a spirited workout focused on protecting the ball.
There are three primary tenets of the Bennett system: Two are on defense: shut off the transition and play tough man-to-man. On offense, there's but one: VALUE THE BALL!
Every possession should be treated like a precious jewel.
Disrespect the jewel and risk the wrath.
"Tony is very demanding of these kids -- he's a great coach to play for but he's also a hard coach to play for, which is a good thing. He demands a lot out of these kids, working so hard on the individual stuff," said Woodley.
"They're all good kids, we haven't had to fight any of them on the system," he added.
The Cougars never again committed as many turnovers in a game this season. In two of their next three games, in fact, their turnovers were in single digits. Moreover, their season average of 11.3 turnovers per game ranks No. 1 in the Pac-10 in ball care and tied for No. 9 nationally. Saint Mary's Ranks No. 74.
Oddsmakers have installed the Gaels as four-point favorites tonight. The winner of the Cougar-Gael game will face either South Carolina or Davidson.
Washington State will play host next season to LSU, but in Seattle, on Dec. 22 at Key Arena in the annual Cougar Hardwood Classic according to a report on KJR-AM Tuesday afternoon. The event is customarily held in Seattle when WSU is on Christmas Break.