Tony Bennett didn’t try to hide it.
There is some gain from playing a non-conference game today in Baton Rouge, La., against Southeastern Conference power Louisiana State, and it’s not just to his Washington State basketball team.
“The benefit for me, obviously, is my wife and kids are there for Christmas and we’ll get to see them,” Bennett said earlier this week.
Bennett’s wife, Laurel, left Pullman earlier than the team, which traveled on Christmas Day, with their two children and spent the holiday with her family in Baton Rouge.
But the personal will never overshadow the professional when it comes to scheduling, and today’s nationally televised showdown with the Tigers (9-1) is an important test for WSU (8-3).
It’s one that came about because of personal connections.
“First and foremost, with this team, we wanted to play a challenging game before conference starts,” said Bennett, whose team opens Pac-10 play Jan. 3, hosting Washington. “It’s hard for us to get teams to play us home-and-home. When LSU called, when (former Stanford coach) Trent (Johnson) went there, because of the relationship we have, and he agreed to come back, we said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
The Cougars have played three ranked teams this season – Pittsburgh, Baylor and Gonzaga, the latter two in Pullman – and have lost all three games. The Tigers have yet to face a ranked team, and lost their only road contest, 72-61 at Texas A&M.
But LSU offers a specific type of challenge for the Cougars.
“Now, they don’t have the Lopez twins,” Bennett said, referring to Stanford’s stars. “But watching them on tape they have some incredibly athletic, long players. They are a heck of team. … They have four starters back, so they are adjusting to (Johnson), but he’s got them playing (defense), he’s got them working.”
Of course, there is a quid pro quo, in more ways than one.
“This is going to be a very, very physical game,” said Johnson, in his first year at LSU after four years at Stanford, where his Cardinal, behind centers Robin and Brook Lopez, defeated WSU three times last season. “This is a basketball team that really, really has to stay poised and it is going to be a possession-by-possession basketball game.
“That’s what we as a staff and I as the head coach have to get through to these guys so they get a good understanding,” Johnson added.
Johnson’s presence in Baton Rouge helped make this intersectional game happen, and it had everything to do with the Tigers taking a return trip to Pullman next year, a rarity for the Cougars.
“The fact we get a return game, playing an SEC team, a well-coached team, against some athleticism, continuing … to prepare us for Pac-10 play, is the significant reason why we’re playing this game,” Bennett said.
The Cougars changed their starting lineup against Idaho, bringing Nik Koprivica off the bench and starting 6-foot-8 Caleb Forrest at the power forward position. “I just felt (Caleb’s) play as of late and his senior experience, his leadership, his heart on the floor, I want him out there,” Bennett said. Forrest has told Bennett he would rather come off the bench, but the coach feels it’s a good way to get him more minutes. … WSU’s long journey to Baton Rouge – via charter – was a lot easier than its trip home from Moscow last week. The Cougars’ bus was stuck in the Kibbie Dome parking lot and the scheduled 20-minute trip took about 2 hours. “We had our KFC postgame meal in the bleachers of the Kibbie Dome, with paper towels from the bathroom as our napkins,” Bennett said. … The Cougars’ top eight are pretty set, with freshmen Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto joining the five starters and Koprivica. The ninth spot, if Bennett decides to go that deep, is a battle between guard Mike Harthun, wing Abe Lodwick and post Charlie Enquist. All are freshmen. The decision is usually based on the matchup needed for that game, Bennett said. … Bennett had his first experience using a snowblower this week. Despite growing up in Wisconsin, Bennett had used only a shovel before. His father, Dick, didn’t believe in snowblowers. “My dad would say, ‘No sir, son, you’re going to be shoveling,’ ” Tony said. But with Pullman’s recent big snowfall, Tony borrowed an assistant’s blower. Now he’s hooked.
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