Commentary

Keeping Wazzu on the national map

With the Bennetts gone, it's now up to Ken Bone to ensure Cougs stay relevant

Originally Published: May 8, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

In just a handful of weeks, Ken Bone has made the most critical connection to fuel his new head-coaching gig at Washington State.

The lady who sells the coffee at Safeway knows him on sight.

"She even gave me an extra shot of vanilla for free the other day," Bone said.

Tabbed to replace Tony Bennett, who stunned the Wazzu faithful when he bolted for Virginia, Bone is a man in need of an added dose of caffeine.

[+] EnlargeKen Bone
AP Photo/Don RyanPortland State had never been to the NCAA tourney before making back-to-back appearances under Bone.

Bennett mixed his family's legacy with his own flair to put Washington State on the national basketball map, making a three-year run in the postseason, including a Sweet 16 berth in 2008.

Bone is charged with keeping the Cougars there.

"This was a very critical hire," athletic director Jim Sterk admitted. "We had to make sure we found the right person to build on what Dick and Tony have established."

That Sterk went for Bone came as a surprise to almost no one in the Pacific Northwest. The two briefly crossed paths 19 years ago, when both worked at Seattle Pacific. He always kept tabs on Bone's coaching career and always kept his name on a mental short list of coaches he'd consider should the day ever come.

But more than Sterk's familiarity with Bone, it was Bone's familiarity with the Northwest that earned him the shot at Washington State.

His basketball roots are firmly entrenched in the region, reaching back from his high school days through his entire coaching career. Bone grew up in Seattle, went to college at Seattle Pacific, coached at his alma mater for a dozen years, spent a few seasons as an assistant at Washington and then led the Portland State program for four years.

His father, Walt, is a longtime high school coach in the state of Washington and his brother, Len, is as well.

With its Pullman address (population 26,000, precipitation 21 inches per year), Washington State is one of the toughest gigs in the Pac-10. This isn't a school that is going to set out platefuls of McDonald's All-Americans anytime soon.

The Cougars needed a coach who can mix hidden gems in with the occasional jolt of top talent. Bone has made a career out of that. At Seattle Pacific, he led the Falcons to six Pacific West titles and eight NCAA bids. At Portland State, he led the school to back-to-back Big Sky titles and NCAA tournament berths -- prior to Bone's run, the school had never been to the Big Dance.

But building a program is one thing -- building it in the same geographical footprint is another.

"It better help," Bone said, laughing, when asked about the advantage of familiarity. "Not that this is the only place we're going to recruit. We're going to have to uncover a lot of stones, but there's no doubt we want to do a great job, a thorough job, in the Pacific Northwest."

There is plenty of talent in the area, but much of it -- see Seattle's Terrence Williams (Louisville), Putnam, Oregon's Kevin Love (UCLA), Tacoma's Avery Bradley (Texas) and Seattle's Peyton Siva (Louisville) -- leaves. When Jon Brockman decided to stay at Washington rather than bolt for Duke, it was considered a major coup for the Huskies.

[+] EnlargeKen Bone
AP Photo/Dean HareThe Northwest is churning out top players left and right these days. Bone intends to keep a few.

His main recruiter? Ken Bone. His high school coach? Len Bone.

Despite the Bennetts' run at success at Washington State, the father-son team rarely tapped into the rich market four hours away in Seattle.

In his short time on the job, Bone already has.

Point guard Reggie Moore recently became Bone's first recruit. Originally signed to Fresno State, the Rainier Beach High School product (the same school that produced Nate Robinson) received a release from his letter of intent, and had visited Oregon and Iowa State, turning down opportunities to check out Memphis and UCLA.

Moore led Rainier to a 29-1 record and a state title as a senior before spending a prep school year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.

"There are so many good players coming out of Seattle and up and down I-5, really," Bone said. "We need to dip into that market."

But true to his word, Bone isn't just staying close to home.

Far from it.

In his first weeks on the job, Bone was in California and Australia, making sure that two of the players Bennett recruited would stick with WSU.

Both Xavier Thames and Brock Motum reaffirmed their commitments and will be on campus in the fall. Thames, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, had received overtures from Florida, UCLA and Arizona since Bennett left.

Following in their footsteps, rising high school senior Patrick Simon, who initially gave a verbal commitment to Wazzu when he was 14, last week said after meeting with Bone, he was sticking with Washington State. Simon had previously said he would reopen his recruitment.

"Everybody knows how hard it is in the recruiting process, which can be a two, three or even four-year process," Bone said. "It's like, 'We're Washington State and we like your eighth grader,' so then over time, someone can visit your school, buy into the community, the players, the coaches, all of it. You're right there, so close. So you just have to sell the new product a little bit. Everything else already has been sold."

Including, thankfully, the extra jolt of caffeine for Ken Bone.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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