LSU gives Christmas gift to Cougs

TONY BENNETT

TONY BENNETT INSISTS that scheduling a basketball game at LSU two days after Christmas was not a decision based exclusively on family values. Sure, the Cougar coach said Tuesday, when the opportunity to play the Tigers meant he could join his wife, Laurel, and children, Anna and Elli, in his wife's hometown of Baton Rouge for the holiday it was at least a positive side issue.

But, more important, he said, was the chance to play "a challenging, tough game before the conference (schedule) starts" and being assured that the series between the two teams would be home-and-home. That's right – LSU will be coming north to play Washington State next season.

"The fact we get a return game, playing an SEC team was … a significant reason for that decision," Tony Bennett said. "It's a home and home which, for us, is significant. Unless it's been a Big 12/Pac-10 Challenge we haven't been able to get a team of that caliber (LSU) coming back to Pullman since we've been here. And we've tried … trust me, we've tried."

No doubt the fact Tiger coach Trent Johnson, who coached at Stanford and grew up in Seattle, and Bennett are friends was a factor in LSU agreeing to make a rare trip for a nonconference game away from home. The Tigers will play only two nonconference road games this season -- a neutral court match against Texas A&M at Houston (won by the Aggies) and a contest against Utah at Salt Lake City later on.

Bennett said geography could be a factor in why high caliber teams have been reluctant to play in Pullman.

"I know it's hard to get to for a lot of them," Bennett said. "So the travel comes into play."

As for whether teams avoid the Cougars because of WSU's recent success, Bennett said he doesn't know.

"Hopefully, that (recent success) would be a positive thing," Bennett said. "Before they always thought, ‘Gee, if we got beat by Washington State that would look awful on our resume.' "

Not so much anymore.

Bennett's plan for having his 8-3 team play "a challenging, tough game" before the conference season starts (Jan. 3 vs. Washington) has been fulfilled by LSU. The Tigers are 8-1 following a 62-59 victory over state-rival McNeese State on Monday. It was their 72nd straight win over Louisiana competition and 12th straight overall at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center going back to last season.

LSU, averaging 78.1 points a game (42nd in the nation) figures to severely test WSU's stout defense. The Cougars are limiting foes to an average of 48.0 points a game, No. 1 in NCAA Division I. Offensively, they are averaging 60.8 points a game.

"Statistically you'd say we're certainly farther along defensively," Bennett said.

But the challenge to improve continues to be a two-way street.

"For us it comes down to good shot selection, good decision making, working to get not just decent shots but real good shots," Bennett said. "And then on the other end it's being rock solid and not having lapses or breakdowns."

The Cougars are scheduled to practice Christmas Eve and before they leave for Baton Rouge on Christmas Day. Weather, Bennett said, could influence the departure location – Pullman, Lewiston or Spokane.

Saturday's game will be televised nationally (11 a.m.) on ESPN2.

NOTABLE:
Senior Caleb Forrest made his first start of the season in the Cougars' victory over Idaho on Sunday but it doesn't mean the senior forward has assured himself a first-unit berth in the future. "Is our lineup set in stone?" Bennett said. "Certainly not. But I think Caleb's a nice addition and he got us off to a good start against Idaho."

Starting in place of Nikola Koprivica at strong forward, Forrest, in 31 minutes, made three of seven shots in scoring six points. He also had four rebounds. "I just felt the because of his play of late and his senior leadership and his heart on the floor I want him out there," Bennett said. "He's just been doing a nice job."

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