PULLMAN – How can it be that halfway through the Pac-10 schedule there just might be more questions than there were five weeks ago?
Washington State coach Tony Bennett may have the answer.
“Is the league as good as it was last year? Probably not,” Bennett said Tuesday. “But it is certainly more balanced than last year.”
That’s why every team in the Pac-10 has questions about its possible finish over the final five weeks. Only Oregon, winless in the first half, is adrift without hope.
“There are probably seven, eight teams who are in the same boat,” Bennett said. “They realize they can play with almost everybody and perhaps beat them and, obviously, the opposite of that is, if you’re not sharp, you’ll beat yourselves.”
That’s what gives Bennett and his 4-5 Cougars a glimmer of hope as the second half gets under way Thursday at Stanford.
“I told the team (Monday), ‘You’ve shown you can be right there and win some games and be in there against real good teams,’ ” Bennett said.
“We have to take that next step. If you want to make a (second-half) push, you have to.”
The next step, Bennett believes, is a mental one.
“My father always used to say, ‘It’s a neck-up game,’ ” the younger Bennett said. “So much of the second half becomes the neck-up game, the mental aspect of it. Can you really, really not beat yourself?”
That has been the case for the Cougars in many of their Pac-10 losses, especially at home. Other than the Washington game – a 20-point defeat – the margins in the other three home losses have been seven, two and two points.
“That’s frustrating when you look at our home record,” Bennett said of the 1-4 mark. “We’ve been in every game at home, except perhaps the first one, Washington.”
The converse of that is WSU is 3-1 on the road, including a 65-55 defeat of then-No. 14 Arizona State last week.
“Sometimes kids relax more on the road,” Bennett said. “They just know it’s got to be about them and their teammates and us. And they play a little more focused and relaxed.
“Sometimes at home, with younger kids, there are more distractions.”
The Cougars play three true freshmen extensively, part of an overhaul that has left WSU 12-9 overall.
“With such a new team, such a different team than last year, I didn’t know what to expect at the halfway point,” Bennett said when asked if the conference season has gone as expected. “I’ve seen some positives and I’ve seen some areas of concern.
“I like that Taylor (Rochestie) and Aron (Baynes) are really stepping their games up, getting leadership from our most experienced players. That has pleased me. I like that I’m seeing a little more consistency from our young kids.”
Still, there are concerns.
“At times I get a little discouraged when I see some of the mental breakdowns, as every coach does,” he said.
Bennett is happy with the way Rochestie, who leads WSU in scoring (12.6 per game) and assists (4.7), and Baynes, the Cougars’ leading rebounder (7.5 per game, including a 9.6 average in Pac-10 games) and second-leading scorer (12.4), have played lately. “Those guys have taken a step up,” Bennett said. … After the senior duo and freshman Klay Thompson (12.1 points per game), WSU has no one averaging more than six points. When asked after Tuesday’s practice which player needed to step up down the stretch for the Cougars to be successful, Bennett thought a while before picking senior Daven Harmeling, who had a Pac-10-high nine points against Arizona. … Rochestie set a WSU record in minutes played last season (1,223, an average of 34.9 minutes per game). He is playing an average of 35.9 minutes this season, including playing all 40 – or 45 in the case of the Oregon State overtime victory – three times in the Pac-10. In conference play he’s averaging 39.1 minutes. “He played a lot of minutes last year,” Bennett said. “You have to watch it, but he is going to play. … I try to, if there are matchups, get him a minute or two. … But we need him on the floor, that’s obvious.” Rochestie has been taking more time off at practice. … When asked his choice for the best player in the conference during the first half, Bennett picked UCLA’s Darren Collison. “He leads the league in Pac-10 championships, in Final Four appearances and pulling games out when his team needs buckets.”
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