Defense, defense, more defense, says Bennett

FACE IT COUGAR FANS: the Washington State men's basketball team is a defensive giant and an offensive midget. And, said coach Tony Bennett, the Cougars, no matter how dedicated they are to working on improving their shooting, will not sacrifice their ability to play stout defense.

That was the message Tony Bennett delivered Tuesday, three days after the Cougars (11-8, 3-4) missed 37 of 51 shots and lost a home game to USC, 46-44.

"The fact we went 14 for 51 and still had a chance to win … I'm not going to say it's unheard of but it might be close to it," Bennett said. "We've been in so many close games and it's because our defense has held us in there even when we've labored to score. We just have to keep challenging our kids not to let that slide because that is what's giving us a chance."

Going into Thursday's game at No. 14 Arizona State (6 p.m., no TV), the Cougars in the Pac-10 Conference are last in scoring average at 58.5 points per game (20 less than No. 1 Washington) and first in defense at 52.5. The Cougars rank ninth in shooting at 42.6 percent.

"I'm open if you've got any suggestions," Bennett said when asked about ways to improve his players' ability to shoot. "We certainly work on our shooting."

Bennett told a dinner gathering of fans Tuesday night that the Cougs have spent more time shooting this week as they prep for two teams who rely on zone defense. He also has encouraged players to get in extra shooting on their own time before or after practice.

It's not that the Cougars haven't shot well at times this season. In fact, two nights before the shooting debacle against USC they made 23 of 48 shots (47.9 percent) in a 61-59 loss to UCLA. Bennett said that prior to the USC game he told his players, particularly senior forward Caleb Forrest, to pick up where they left off.

Forrest, who made eight of nine shots against UCLA, was 1 for 11 against USC.

"We got good looks. We took good shots," Bennett said. "There were probably a few times when we forced one or made a mistake. But, boy, those shots were great looking shots."

Bennett said he thought his team played "pretty well" in a comeback effort that fell just short against UCLA.

"And I'll be honest with you, against USC, that was one of our best defensive performances of the year. We just shot the ball very, very poor."

The challenge to play strong defense isn't going to let up for the Cougars against Arizona State. The Sun Devils' James Harden leads the Pac-10 in scoring average at 22.0 and Jeff Pendergraph is first in field-goal shooting percentage at 67.5 (104 for 154).

Harden, projected as the No. 2 player in the next NBA draft should he choose to leave ASU early, "has great patience," Bennett said. "Very rarely do you see him force the action and make the wrong decision."

But Harden, Pendergraph and their Sun Devil teammates can expect to be challenged.

"We're playing (defense) at a pretty high level," Bennett said. "But you still can keep shrinking your lapses.

"I'll keep driving as hard as I can on them defensively … just keep getting better and tougher and sounder to hold us in games. That has to be the way we do it this year, no question."

NOTABLE: The Cougars take on Arizona in Tucson on Saturday. Tip off is at 10 am PT. CBS will broadcast the game.

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