A few things to talk about this evening, though not as much as usual on a Tuesday afternoon. That's because WSU did not practice today, doing a little lifting and individual work instead. So the players were unavailable. But coach Tony Bennett did meet with the media as usual, and we have some of what he said. Read on.
• A lot of Bennett's press conference revolved around his team's improved play over the last three games. But how improved are the Cougars? Bennett kept emphasizing not that much. Not that they aren't playing well, but that they weren't playing that poorly before. "We were close," Bennett said more than once. The difference now, according to Bennett, is they are finishing games. "We've been pretty close in a lot of games," he said. "We've had chances. And that is the difference, I guess, in playing better. I've said that so many times. If you are just a little more solid, then you are that much better because you've got wins. But we've been in most games, with the exception of a poor stretch here or there. Maybe the 30-35 minutes of play has been pretty good, but it's just been the ability to finish them out. Now we've finished three of them out."
And they've finished them out in different ways, winning with offense at UCLA, with poise against Arizona and with defense against Arizona State. "That makes you feel better," Bennett said. "But it's not like we've become this way different team. Our rotation has tightened up a little bit, guys have improved little by little but it's not been that much different." In summary, there have been little incremental improvements that have added up to a big difference on the scoreboard. We are going to highlight one of those difference in a story later this week, the one we believe is the key to WSU's recent success.
• Another question posed to Bennett often today revolved around the differences in his team and UW since they met back in the first week of the Pac-10 season. "Hopefully, we've improved as this year's gone on," Bennett said, citing the improvements among the freshmen and the comfort the upperclassmen have gained with their roles. He also talked about the difference in effort and precision needed to win a Pac-10 Conference basketball game, something the freshmen were aware of intellectually but had to experience to really understand. They've experienced it 17 times now and should be better prepared for the pressure – mental and physical – UW can apply. Bennett pointed out it was 46-41 Washington with 9 minutes, 31 seconds left before the Huskies put the game away with an 9-2 mini-run fueled by a couple WSU turnovers, a defensive breakdown that led to an open Justin Dentmon 3-pointer and a couple UW offensive rebounds. "We struggled," he said. "We didn't have everybody playing at a high offensive level. Some guys were off or cold. ... And our defense didn't keep us in there well enough to handle the run they put on us."
Bennett called UW the most athletic team in the Pac-10 and gave a majority of the credit for the Huskies' success to the play of their guards. ... He also feels his team has done enough to warrant inclusion in at least the NIT no matter what happens the rest of the way. Here's a note Bennett didn't mention but I'll bring up: Last season WSU defeated three teams ranked in the top 25 when they played, finishing the year 3-6 against top 25 competition. This year the Cougars, with arguably a weaker team, have turned the trick three times as well, twice on the road. They are 3-4 after starting the season 0-4 against the top 25. Bennett won't politic for an at-large berth in the NCAAs, saying he's never been good at figuring out what a team has to accomplish to gain a nod, or the NIT. "I don't know if there is any part of it based on past years," Bennett said. "I want us to play well and wherever that puts us (is fine)."
• One last note. WSU announced Monday night the seven former Cougars chosen this year to be inducted into the athletic hall of fame. The list includes five contemporary athletes/coaches – basketball player Craig Ehlo, volleyball player Keri Killebrew, runners Peter Koech and Bernard Lagat and football coach Jim Walden – along with two pioneers – retired SID Richard "Dick" Fry and football player Duke Washington. You can read more here.
• That's it for this evening. What's coming up this week? Well, we'll have the how-have-the-Cougs-improved story along with one examining the importance of Saturday's game on WSU's postseason hopes. Plus, more thoughts here on SportsLink. And, don't forget, spring football starts in three weeks. Until later …