Wazzu must prove it is no one-hit wonder
PULLMAN, Wash. -- When the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll was released in late October, "SportsCenter" anchors breezed through the top 10, not even pausing as they passed Washington State at No. 10, acting as though that was no big deal. They highlighted the big-name schools -- the UNCs, the UCLAs, the Dukes -- and didn't look twice at the Cougars.
We came here with the impression we could turn it around. We believed in the coaches, and they believed in us. There were times where I was wondering if we're doing it the right way. I don't know. Then to see it pay off last year was really special.
What they failed to recognize was that Wazzu's ranking is one of the most remarkable college hoops awakenings in recent memory.
"I think it's the greatest story in college basketball right now," said Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson, a former Washington State coach. "Washington State? In Pullman, Washington? What Tony [Bennett] has done is a completely different level than anything they've seen. It goes to show you, if you get the right coach at the right school, good things can happen. And he's the right coach."
Pullman is like a lot of remote college towns, with farm animals dotting the outskirts and a handful of traffic lights to slow you down. Nothing about this place screams college hoops power, but somehow Bennett -- in just his first season as a head coach -- transformed this program into a top-10 team, a Pac-10 and Final Four contender.
"Right now, our program is in uncharted waters," said 38-year-old Bennett on the cusp of his second season at the helm.
There was really no reason to believe this could have happened here, of all places. But it has. And, if Bennett continues to recruit the way he has so far for the Class of 2008, there is no reason to believe it won't continue.
Already, there is a buzz among coaches in the West that Washington State is getting more coveted players, such as when it received a verbal commitment from 6-foot-6 Klay Thompson out of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. And junior Taylor Rochestie, who transferred two years ago from Tulane, willingly gave up his scholarship (he said he has the means to do this financially) so the Cougs could accept the verbal commitment of 6-5 guard Marcus Capers out of Montverde, Fla., after the two hit it off during Capers' official visit.
Bennett can't comment on the recruits until they sign letters of intent, but the reality is that the Cougars wouldn't land Thompson if they hadn't won 26 games, finished second in the Pac-10 (13-5), finished 12th in the final coaches' poll and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.
At least, that's what the Cougars think. They firmly believe their becoming a top-25 team has made it palatable to come to Washington State and turn down other high-level Pac-10 schools.
But the Cougars have to prove they're more than a one-hit wonder, that last season's renaissance was merely the beginning of a long-term college basketball awakening in Pullman.
"We are right on that line. It's a foreign concept for Washington State to compete for," Bennett said. "We haven't been here [at that level] for long, so maybe last year was such a shock to some people. And I just want our guys to continue to fight mentally because that's who we are, whether we're picked first or last. I think we have a lot to prove this year. I do."
It works here for Bennett, who won in his first season after taking over for his father, Dick. The Cougars faithful would have seen all too well how much more difficult it would have been to rebuild had Tony Bennett left for the Big Ten last spring. He could have been a major candidate at Michigan, Iowa or Minnesota, had he thrown his name out there. Michigan still might have gone with John Beilein, a more proven commodity than Bennett, and Minnesota wanted a big splash and found a home run hire in Tubby Smith. But Iowa might have looked long and hard at Bennett as well as eventual hire Todd Lickliter of Butler if given the choice.
But WSU moved Bennett's salary up from a rather pedestrian for the Pac-10 $350,000 to a seven-year deal starting at $800,000 per year. It still puts him ninth in the Pac-10, ahead of only Jay John of Oregon State. Still, when the season ended and the Big Ten possibilities popped up, Tony and wife Laurel sat down in their new house and decided it made sense to stay. They didn't want to trade the comfort of Pullman and what they had built in such a short time for a rat race Big Ten job.
Still, this isn't Manhattan, Kan., where Kansas State had a long, storied tradition in college basketball in a small college town in a remote area.
Bennett acknowledges that he took this job at the right time -- after his father. Dick Bennett, who took a similar cast of hardworking guys to the Final Four with Wisconsin in 2000, transformed the Cougs' attitude when he arrived in 2003 with son Tony as his top assistant. That's why the younger Bennett's most treasured possession in his office is an artist's rendition of his father cutting down the nets in Albuquerque, N.M., after the Badgers secured a trip to the Final Four.
That first fall, Dick Bennett was pained as he tried to get the players to work on the basic fundamentals of passing, catching and moving without the ball. There were a lot of mistakes, and the basketball was being taught at the early stages.
"That's my father," Bennett said. "He did it. He said, 'I will take the heat. I know what has to happen to get a breath.' I don't think people realize that the players came here to turn it around."
WSU won seven games the season before Dick Bennett arrived. The Cougars won 13 games, including seven Pac-10 games, the first season under the new coach. The second season, the Cougars won seven conference games and 12 overall before an 11-17 dip in Year 3.
Senior Robbie Cowgill was a sophomore in the 11-win season.
"There were times my sophomore year when we lost six straight, and I wondered if this is ever going to turn it around," he said. "We came here with the impression we could turn it around. We believed in the coaches, and they believed in us. There were times where I was wondering if we're doing it the right way. I don't know. Then to see it pay off last year was really special."
The players who came to turn this program around -- notably current seniors Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Cowgill -- are no slouches, although because they play in remote Pullman, they get less national attention and there can be a perceived lack of talent.
But Low and Weaver made the 12-player Pan Am Games squad this past summer; likely All-American Chris Lofton of Tennessee did not.
When Pan Am squad coach Jay Wright of Villanova played Low one minute in the first two games combined, the U.S. lost both. When he started 6-2 Low in the final three games of the event, the U.S. team won each time.
"Low changed our whole team," said Indiana forward D.J. White, a member of the Pan Am Games team. "He's so crafty. He reminds me, and I'm not putting him in this category, but like a Steve Nash. He gets everybody involved and hits shots and gets to the basket."
Low laughed about the perceived lack of talent. He said that doesn't bother him or the rest of the squad at all. But the country still hasn't warmed up to the Cougs.
"Those guys are really good, and I think being out there on the West Coast, especially, a lot of people in the Midwest and East Coast don't know about Washington State and don't see them on TV, but those guys can definitely play," said Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel, a teammate of the pair on the Pan Am team. "Kyle was such an impressive passer and slasher to the basket. He's a do-it-all guy. Derrick is a character. You don't think he can do much, but he's quicker than people think."
"We've been hearing it since we've been here, that we can't do this and won't be able to do that," Weaver said. "The biggest thing is our experience, and we've been together for a while and we know what to expect. We work on the finer things, getting around screens, executing every day in practice."
Washington State has been winning by sticking to Bennett's principles. The former standout guard at UW-Green Bay wants to avoid giving up any transition points, keep the opponent on the perimeter and not in the box, contest shots, rebound on the defensive glass, and play the percentages on defense and not gamble. He said that the Cougars will always run an offense that values taking care of the ball and getting good shots and that as the players, improve, as they have over the past two seasons, more freedom is given to create shots. The Bennett way is to eliminate the things that make you lose, and most of the time for this group, that is giving up transition baskets at the other end.
"We embraced his competitive underdog mentality," Cowgill said. "He cares incredibly about us as people. It really is like a family: We're like his son, and he cares about us. And when that happens, you have a lot more fun playing and you let the coach coach you hard.
"He's a 6-foot guy who was told you're too small, you can't make it and was second-guessed to the highest level. That's exactly the personality of this team."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.