Team preview: Washington State
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006-07 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
Former Washington State coach Dick Bennett planted the roots of respectability at what was perhaps -- coming off a combined 13 wins in 2001-02 and 2002-03 -- the worst upper major Division I program in the nation. Then he took his 490 career wins and 62 percent career winning percentage and retired.
Bennett, one of the most underappreciated coaches in recent memory, is gone, but his influence will still be felt in Pullman. That's because his replacement is his son, Tony. The former NBA guard and the NCAA career three-point field-goal percentage leader (.497) was signed to a five-year contract in March, and having spent the last three seasons in Pullman as an assistant coach, he knows the challenges ahead.
"With a job like Washington State, it's not like you're going into every season as a preseason top-5 nationally," the younger Bennett said. "I mean, that would be great, but it's probably not realistic. In five years, I'll know a lot more about what's possible here than right now.
"The philosophy when we came in, three seasons ago, was let's try and be competitive, and my father accomplished that -- we finished seventh and tied for sixth before last year. But you need a season like that to allow a class to grow up and now it's time to take advantage."
Since the 1995-96 Kevin Eastman-coached Cougars finished 18-11, the program is 100-182 (.355), including a 39-141 (.217) Pac-10 mark. And just to further illustrate the remarkable efforts of Dick Bennett the last three seasons, consider that Washington State was 21-105 (.167) in conference play the seven campaigns before his arrival. The two seasons before Bennett pulled off back-to-back 7-11 efforts, the Cougars were a combined 3-33.
"I can't tell you how much of a privilege and an honor it is for me to follow in the footsteps of my father," Tony Bennett said. "Everywhere he has gone, there have been two things that have been consistent when he has rebuilt programs. People have always said they have been full of integrity and passion. There's no question that is what I want to carry on. In my father's time here, he has a lot to be proud of, all the streaks that were broken and the genuine excitement he's brought back to the fans of Washington State.
"When he was hired, there was instant credibility, and that was exciting for me. Not many sons get that experience with their father at my phase of life what I did and I treasure the three years that we were together. I received so many e-mails and calls from people saying my dad's legacy will last a long time. I want to carry that on with pride."
The list of streaks ended the previous three seasons is staggering. Here's a sampling of what the Cougars pulled off under Dick Bennett:
• Snapped a 27-game road losing streak by defeating Alaska-Fairbanks, 57-51, on Nov. 22, 2003.
• Defeated Cal, 55-50 on Jan. 4, 2004 and in the process, ended a 31-game losing streak in the state of California and a 22-game Pac-10 road losing streak.
• After 47 straight losses at UCLA, including 39 at Pauley Pavilion WSU defeated the Bruins, 55-48 on Feb. 5, 2004. The victory was also the first against UCLA anywhere in nearly a dozen years.
• In 2003-04, for the first-time in program history, the Cougars defeated UCLA and USC on the road in the same season.
• On Jan. 29, 2005, WSU defeated then-No. 11 Arizona, 70-63, to break a 38-game losing streak against the Wildcats. The win came on the road, too, halting a 20-game losing streak in Tucson. Most impressively, though, it was the program's first win over a ranked opponent in 48 attempts.
• The Cougars' 78-71 victory over then-No. 10 Washington on Jan. 7, 2006 was the program's first against a top-10 team on the road in 57 efforts. WSU also swept Washington last season for the first time since 1994.
While the program's turnaround was lauded by opposing coaches and the majority of the media, many a fan around the Pac-10 were less than enthusiastic about the Cougars style of play under Bennett. Some of the highlights (lowlights?) last season alone included a 50-30 loss to UCLA and back-to-back two-point home defeats to Cal and Stanford. The scores? How about 43-41 and 39-37, respectively. WSU also put up 37 points at Oregon the game before those low-scoring affairs, meaning they averaged 38.3 points over three games.
Dick Bennett did what he had to do to bring the program back to respectability. Tony Bennett -- the youngest Pac-10 coach at 37 -- was there, sitting on the bench and he knows that. As for this season's offensive style, while he didn't come out and specifically say so, Tony Bennett knows recruiting becomes a whole lot easier when a team is scoring 70 points a night compared to 30 and 37.
"I'm open to opening up the offense, to find ways to play faster, but it's about finding a way to give your team a chance to win," Bennett said. "As a player, you're either a shooter or a maker. I mean, I'm not about to have the team start firing three-pointers all day. We're not that team. I can't predict exactly what we're going to do, but I'm going to give freedom to players capable of handling it."
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