|Washington State relies on stifling defense to reach round of 16|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 24 March 2008 13:30|
With a stifling defense and deliberate offense, the Cougars held Winthrop to 40 points and Notre Dame to 41 in routing both opponents.
The 81 points are the lowest opening two-game total in the NCAA tournament since Oklahoma State held Wyoming (39) and Oregon State (30) to 69 points in 1949. That was before the shot clock, and only a decade after the death of James Naismith, the inventor of the game.
Next up for the Cougars is the ultimate test to their stinginess. Washington State plays top-seeded North Carolina (34-2), which is averaging 110 points in two tournament wins, in the round of 16 on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.
``There's a big collision coming, isn't there?'' Washington State coach Tony Bennett said Monday.
Fourth-seeded Washington State (26-8) averages only 67 points per game, so they aren't likely to outscore Tyler Hansbrough and company, who average nearly 90.
``They are the most impressive team in the country in getting down the floor and scoring in transition, on your misses and makes,'' Bennett said. ``We are playing against extreme talent.''
The Cougars will counter with the nation's second-best defense, which is allowing 56 points per game - only 48 points to opponents outside the Pac-10.
While Washington State's defense is suddenly grabbing national attention, this is nothing new to those who have watched the program evolve the past five seasons from perpetual loser to perennial winner under coaches Dick and Tony Bennett.
Washington State, located in remote Pullman, 75 miles south of Spokane, has never been able to regularly recruit the type of blue-chippers it faces at UCLA, Arizona, Stanford and other Pac-10 teams.
When Dick Bennett came out of retirement for the 2003-04 season to rebuild the program, he saw defense as the only way to narrow the gap.
The plan worked.
Working mostly with players ignored by larger programs - such as Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Robbie Cowgill - WSU quickly became everyone's least favorite opponent in the Pac-10. Scores dropped into the 40s and 50s, and most games were close, even as losses continued to pile up.
When Tony Bennett took over before last season, the veteran Cougars were primed to rise. They went 26-8 with a defense that allowed 59.5 ppg.
This year, with big center Aron Baynes clogging up the inside, the defense is every better. Twelve times they held opponents to under 50 points, including a season-low 26 by Mississippi Valley State.
Last Saturday, the Cougars held Notre Dame 39 points below its season average of 80, and to 24 percent shooting.
It's heady stuff for a program making only its sixth trip to the NCAA tournament, and first back-to-back appearance. The 1941 team beat Creighton (48-39) and Arkansas (64-53) in the first two rounds of the eight-team tournament, losing to Wisconsin (39-34) in the title game.
But for most of its hoops history, Washington State has been an also-ran. North Carolina, on the other hand, is one of the most storied programs in history.
Low, who was raised in Honolulu, said he grew up a fan of North Carolina, because of Michael Jordan.
``Aside from that, it's all business,'' Low said. ``We've got to come out and play and not be awe-struck because of who they are.''
Weaver said he was in class Monday with a student who was wearing a North Carolina hat.
``I couldn't be mad at the guy,'' Weaver said. ``I've got to say the hat was nice.''
This will be the 26th time that WSU is playing the No. 1 team in the nation - always another Pac-10 team - and they have lost all 25 of the previous games.
The 270-pound Baynes will draw the assignment of guarding Hansbrough, a player of the year candidate averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds.
The Cougars will try to keep the ball out of Hansbrough's hands, a strategy that worked against Notre Dame big man Luke Harangody, who was held to 10 points - half his average.
``Nobody has given us much of a chance,'' Bennett said. ``That's fine.''
``Playing our system gives us a chance to compete against the very best, and we are going to do that. We just have to do what we do, at an elite level.''