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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The Bennett factor

    When Tony Bennett and Ben Johnson were teammates at Wisconsin-Green Bay, they made a vow to never become coaches.

    “”Didn’t wanna do it,”” Bennett said of coaching. “”Last thing I ever wanted to do.””

    Lucky for the No. 6 Washington State men’s basketball team, neither kept their word.

    After a pro foray, Bennett is now in his second season at the helm of the program after taking over for his father, Dick Bennett, and Johnson is his assistant. Tony – last year’s Pacific 10 Conference and National Coach of the Year – has led the Cougars to their best start since World War I.

    WSU won its first 14 games this season, marking its best start since the 1916-17 National Championship team opened 15-0. The current Cougars’ only loss came in the ninth week of the season against then-No. 5 UCLA when they were the No. 4 team in the nation.

    The players give the credit to Bennett.

    “”He’s a great coach that all players can relate to because he’s been through all the levels,”” said senior guard Derrick Low, who leads the team with 14.4 points per game. “”He’s been there through high school basketball, college basketball, NBA basketball, overseas basketball. That just makes it more comfortable to play for him. He knows how to push us and he challenges us to be mentally tough.””

    After a 26-8 finish and an entrance into the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, it would be easy to pat Tony Bennett on the back and congratulate him for making WSU an elite-level team for the first time since the 1980s. But he’d rather you congratulate the fans in Pullman and more importantly, the players on the team.

    “”They’ve really shown what it takes to win consistently,”” Bennett said. “”You’ve got to want it and they do. They really do.””

    Although they only have the 127th hardest schedule in the country, according to the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) – Arizona has the hardest – the Cougs have the best defense in the nation, allowing opponents to score just 52.5 points per game. Part of limiting opponents’ scoring comes from WSU’s slow-down offensive method of play, which has Cougs at a 69.2 ppg average – eighth in the Pac-10.

    “”I don’t think we necessarily want to play slow,”” Low said. “”I mean, if we’ve got a quick shot and it’s an open shot, we’re for sure going to take it. It’s just, we’re a team that takes good shots.

    “”We don’t want to come down the court quick and take a shot one-on-one because that’s a bad shot,”” Low explained. “”But if we can get someone to come off a screen and take a nice, open shot, that’s a good shot.””

    Coupling with Low to make up one of the best backcourts in the nation is guard Kyle Weaver, who’s averaging 11.2 points per game to go with 4.6 rebounds per game. The duo represented Team USA in the 2007 Pan American Games and both are on the watch lists for the Naismith Trophy and the John R. Wooden Award.

    Forward Robbie Cowgill and center Aron Baynes – both 6-foot-10 – and guard Taylor Rochestie round out the veteran starting lineup that is made up of four seniors and a redshirt junior.

    “”They’ve really built the program,”” said UA interim head coach Kevin O’Neill, who has coached against Dick Bennett in the past. “”They’ve matured. Freshmen and sophomores turned into juniors and seniors. They now have a system in what they believe in offensively and defensively.””

    The Cougars have depth coming off the bench, too. Forward Daven Harmeling, who broke his right thumb in practice in

    December, hasn’t been hindered by the injury, save for two games he missed. The redshirt junior averaged 6.4 ppg before the injury and is averaging 9 ppg in the Cougars’ last four games with padding on his thumb.

    Harmeling averaged 20 points over WSU’s two wins against Arizona last season, including a career-high 28 points with seven 3-pointers in their first meeting.

    “”I think his intensity in the game helps us out a lot,”” Low said. “”And he’s the most vocal player on the team and guys know that they listen to him.””

    Four players from all different countries also contribute to the diverse but tight-knit team. That, added to the diversity of WSU’s coaching staff, is what keeps the Cougars going, Low said.

    “”We all add drive and we all have fire,”” Low said. “”This is a veteran team that just wants to win. And that’s it.””

    -Michael Schwartz contributed to this report

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