Hoops: Patience will pay off says Bennett

DICK BENNETT HAS MADE a career of turning around college basketball programs. Without fail, he says, year No. 3 in the rebuilding process is the toughest. So as he gears up for his third campaign on the Palouse, he says to plan for some growing pains with his young Cougars, but to sleep well knowing that the following season --- when all these youngsters are savvy vets --- will be one to remember.

"The third year at every place I've been at has been my hardest," he told a throng of loyalists at a dinner in Seattle last week. "Every one of those teams was miserable, because they were sophomores. Everyone expects so much because they were great as freshmen, but they had some older players with them that first year."

He's not saying this season's Cougars will be miserable. But with just one player in the program --- fifth-year senior guard Randy Green --- who has more than one year on the Palouse, there figures to be some bumps in the proverbial road.

"I've been saying all along you need three full years to rebuild a program like WSU," said Bennett. "You need a group of upperclassmen you recruited. They are sophomores this year. They need one more year. The program will be one year away from being where we'll all be proud of it."

Last season, led by seniors Thomas Kelati and Jeff Varem, the Cougars finished 12-14. A whopping nine of those losses were decided in overtime or the final seconds of regulation.

Bennett didn't offer a prediction of how the Cougs will finish this year. "At this stage I try to not even think of the bottom line," he said. "If you focus on the quality of the team, everything else falls in place. You have to take into account the quality of the opponents. The Pac-10 is good from top to bottom this year."

Above all, he wants "to see improvement," he said. "We've sprinkled in a few JC players. We're hoping we'll have more depth than we've had. I hope a couple of young kids will emerge."

The JC players are 6-1 guard Antonio Chavers and forwards Ivory Clark (6-5) and Rodney Edgerson (6-4). They are part of an incoming class of recruits that also includes prep standouts Caleb Forrest, a 6-8 forward from Colorado; Chris Matthews. A 6-3 ½ guard from Philadelphia; and Aron Baynes, a 6-10 center from Australia.

"Aron will get some playing time this year," Bennett said of the big man from Down Under. "We were counting on Edgerson, but he's injured. I think some of them will be able to provide competition. The sooner they learn how we play, the more they'll be able to do for us."

Assistant coach Tony Bennett, who officially was named last week to succeed his father as head coach at the end of either this season or next, said Edgerson was expected to help fill the void left by the graduation of Kelati, a first-team All-Pac-10 performer. Edgerson has disc problems in his back, but is expected to play this season. "We'll just wait for him to heal up," said Tony.

The size and strength of some of the new players will be a benefit. "Aron is tall, but he's also strong," Tony added. "He's like a lumberjack strong. And Caleb will be good. You have to have some size, and you have to have guys willing to lay it out on the court."



These newcomers will join a cast of six impressive sophomores --- all of whom saw considerable action last season. Two of them – 6-10 center Robbie Cowgill and 6-3 point guard Derrick Low – earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honorable mention honors. And three others --- guards Kyle Weaver and Josh Akognon and forward Daven Harmeling --- played significant roles. All played in 25 games or more. Weaver started 10 and Akognon came off the bench to nail 28 three-point shots --- one of the most prolific shows of long-distance accuracy ever by a Cougar freshman.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the sophomore, though, is the guy who played the least last season: 6-8, 257-pound banger Chris Henry. He originally was expected to start, but was hobbled all season long with an ankle injury and played sparingly in just 14 games.

Dick Bennett said knew he had a tall order in front of him when he stepped out of retirement and into the WSU job. The Cougars' last winning season was 1995-96 and they'd won only three conference games in Paul Graham's last two seasons at the helm.

"The college basketball fraternity is small," said Bennett. "I knew how bad it was here. It was apparent it would be an unusually difficult task. It's a lot harder building this program. The location makes it hard to recruit. It's all about having guys who want to work hard."

In addition to the location, there's the fact the state must be shared with two programs that already are where Bennett strives to be, Gonzaga and UW.

"We're never going to have better personnel," Bennett said. "I accept that. But that doesn't mean we can't be the best team. You don't have to have the best players to have the best team."


"How many sons my age (36) get a chance to spend time with their dad at this stage in their life? Dad is one of the best leaders in the country. To continue to learn under him is invaluable," noted Tony Bennett, who added a wisecrack about his dad's advancing age (62).

Not to be outdone, Dick countered, "I couldn't leave behind a program that wasn't ready. Who wouldn't want to leave something great for their son, Bill." He added, "Tony is one heckuva recruiter. His mom told me to say that. So there."

Tony Bennett showed he also has a quick wit when talking about when he would like to take over the head coach job. "My wife and I are building a house," he said. "If it gets more expensive, I'll need that head coaching salary sooner."

The Cougars will play 12 of their first 13 games in Pullman, Spokane and Seattle. The only trip outside the state is to San Diego State on Dec. 10. They open the year with an exhibition against Lewis-Clark State on Nov. 15 and then start the official season Nov. 19 against UC-Riverside.

They'll play three games in Spokane and two in Seattle in that early going. They'll face BYU in the Spokane Arena on Nov. 22, visit Gonzaga on Dec. 18, and come back to the Spokane Arena to open the Pac-10 schedule vs. Arizona on Dec. 29.

They travel to Seattle for a home game against Utah in Key Arena on Dec. 22 and then return Jan. 7 to take on Washington at HecEd Pavilion.

* The Bennetts were in Seattle, along with women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell and athletic director Jim Sterk, for "A Night with WSU Basketball" celebration at Salty's on Alki in West Seattle. The event, sponsored by The Village Pub in Magnolia, raised more than $5,000 for the WSU Student-Athlete Scholarship Fund.

* More information on the 2005-06 Cougars can be found via these links:

2005-06 SCHEDULE



Cougfan Top Stories