Cougars go back for their future
CORVALLIS, Ore. – The sight was so surprising it was almost laughable.
Here was the No. 9 team in the country, lined up across the Gill Coliseum floor, working on defensive slides and stances as assistant coach Ben Johnson held a ball in the direction he wanted the players to move.
It was the kind of drill a team would do in the middle of October, not late in February. But if ever there was a sign that Tony Bennett thinks a little sealant around his Washington State program’s most basic fundamentals is needed, this was it.
“We know where our bread is buttered, and that’s being hard-nosed and as tough as we can defensively,” Bennett said, one day after Oregon dealt his team a fifth loss and a fourth conference defeat on the season. “For us to have a chance to be successful, this team has to be as tough and as smart as possible. That’s our ticket – more so than most teams, just because of who we are and the makeup of this team.”
To be sure, the Cougars had more than just one problem spring up in the 64-59 defeat Thursday night, and those were also addressed in Friday’s practice, leading up to today’s 5 p.m. game against 11-18 Oregon State. Dribbling drills were also on the agenda after 14 turnovers, a team-high in Pac-10 play.
“Tighten the screws, yup,” junior guard Derrick Low said. “We know what we’ve got to do. There are just some mistakes that were made (Thursday) night that we could have done without. But we don’t necessarily need to refocus what we’ve been doing all along.”
The Cougars find themselves in a place completely unfamiliar to this program. At 22-5, the worst thing that can happen to them is to drop a few seeds within the NCAA tournament. So while they try to play as well as possible now, it’s also clear that Bennett has his eye on the weeks ahead.
In each of the last two games, WSU has held an audition of sorts, looking for a fourth guard to fill out an eight-man rotation.
Against Washington, Antonio Chavers saw significant time for the first time all year. Against Oregon, Jeremy Cross got the same chance. But it was another guard, Mac Hopson, who played 16 minutes Thursday after idling on the bench for nearly all of the conference season, who appears to have made the biggest impression.
Hopson scored seven points against the Ducks and his point guard abilities may pave the way for more playing time in the future, Bennett said.
“Mac has earned a spot in the rotation for the Oregon State game,” the coach confirmed. “As far as how much or how little (he plays), that depends on how the game is going.”
While it’s important for Bennett to solidify his rotation for the long term this season, there’s little doubt that he’ll need more production from his stars in the short term.
The Cougars haven’t won in Corvallis since 1998, and although the Beavers have struggled this season they did post a solid win against Washington on Thursday night.
Meanwhile, WSU’s top two players, guards Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low, struggled against the Ducks. Low, who is apparently back to full health after a persistent stomach virus, has not scored more than his 14.3-point average once this month. Players like he, Bennett said, will be a key to the Cougars getting back into the win column.
“It’s important for us,” Bennett said of a potential Low resurgence. “We haven’t had a game where we’ve had everybody clicking on all cylinders offensively. We need that. He didn’t play quite as many minutes, and he’s always one shot away or one game away from breaking out or really being a threat.”