It's Tony Time! What should Cougs expect?

PULLMAN - Speaking to a crowded room of family, friends, media and Washington State basketball players, newly introduced head coach Tony Bennett was nearly overcome with emotion – even as he repeated one of the pet phrases that he's used in countless interviews for the past three years.

"I've always said, not many sons get to experience being with their father at this stage in life," Tony said, before pausing momentarily to compose himself.

The 36-year-old Bennett has, in fact, always said one reason he chose to join the staff at WSU was to spend time with his father, 62-year-old retiring head coach Dick Bennett. The father-son duo have worked together in a professional capacity since Tony's playing days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he starred before spending three seasons in the NBA. They reunited on the bench when Dick was the head coach at the University of Wisconsin, and Tony followed Dick out of retirement and onto the Palouse before the 2003-04 season.

On his son's behalf, the elder Bennett has always said one reason he came to WSU was to ensure Tony a good chance at running his own program one day. This past offseason it became official that Tony would succeed Dick upon his retirement, and on Tuesday, it became official that the new Bennett era begins in the ‘06-07 season.

ONE OBVIOUS QUESTION – another that has been asked and answered numerous times – concerns what the younger Bennett plans to do on the court. Athletic director Jim Sterk beamed at the press conference as he promised more years of "Bennett Ball." But is that really what the WSU program will continue to see?

In more than 40 years on the bench, Dick Bennett has found the most success while employing a grind-it-out, defensive-minded system. Scores are low and statistics suffer, but the style known as "Bennett Ball" took Dick and the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four in 2000, and took WSU from a Pac-10 joke to a respectable, competitive team.

At the same time, Bennett Ball is often pleasing to watch only to the basketball purists. While the Cougars have perched atop the conference in defensive statistics in Dick's tenure, they have also secured an annual spot at the bottom of the offensive charts. In the last three games, in fact, the Cougars (11-14 overall, 4-12 in the Pac-10) have averaged 38.3 points per game. Such scoring output is fine if you're a college football team, but doesn't do much to raise the Q-rating of a hoops squad.

Bennett knows as much, but when the focus is on winning basketball games and not attracting national TV time slots, high scores be damned.

SO WHAT HAPPENS when Tony takes over? At the press conference, Tony was non-committal about making any changes to his father's system.

"Continuity is going to help this program," Bennett said, adding that he would evaluate his players to see which direction to go.

In a sit-down interview with Cougfan.com in January 2005 (see links below), Tony had a similar opinion:

"A good coach always looks at his team and says, ‘What gives us the best chance to be successful?' and that's what I'll always do," he said then. "When I played for my dad we scored in the 70s and we pushed things, because we had the ability to do that. That's starting to happen here. Now if you ever think you'll be able to run with a Washington or an Arizona, you'll never win here. You have to be sound defensively and you have to learn to play in the half court, but you also have to push it when you have opportunities, and that's what we're trying to move towards."

Dick Bennett said he believes Tony's experience in the NBA and playing professionally overseas has helped make Tony a more creative offensive mind than he. Dick predicted Tony will be a better offensive coach than he is, but also said he hopes the possibly-new-look Cougars maintain elements of the same defensive system.

"Tony's always been his own man and he's always had really creative ideas offensively," said Dick. "And I hope he holds onto a lot of the defensive stuff because we've really worked (at that)."

REFLECTING ON THE Dick Bennett era at Washington State, the greatest compliment is that Dick made WSU a factor.

No, the Cougars haven't won a Pac-10 postseason tournament game, and have never had a realistic shot at the NCAA's Big Dance. But with, among others, signature wins at UCLA his first season, at Arizona last season, and a series sweep of in-state rival Washington this year, Washington State basketball is no longer a myth to national media and more importantly, no longer a myth to potential high school recruits.

This season, Cougar fans entertained thoughts of an NIT berth until very recently (though there is still an outside shot). With a young roster that boasts just one senior next to nine sophomores and freshmen who get playing time, early promise turned to recent disappointment. A failure to simply put points on the board is an obvious culprit, but WSU has also been plagued by key injuries and has been snake-bitten in close games.

As Tony pointed out in Tuesday's press conference, the likelihood that Dick Bennett would step down this year went from 60/40 to 70/30 to "99 percent to one" in recent weeks. Dick's brother, Jack, was quoted in a Wisconsin newspaper recently that Dick told him he was "105 percent" sure he was leaving this year. Even in practices throughout the year, Dick would sometimes say things to his players that suggested this was his last year.

WITH ONE MORE week of regular season play, the league tournament, and possibly the NIT or – if WSU were to somehow run the table in the Pac-10 tourney – the Big Dance, Tony Bennett doesn't actually inherit the whistle for some time.

When that day comes, the same 'Bennett Ball' will continue out on the Palouse. Only it will be different.

Tony Bennett Q & A Part I, (January '05
Tony Bennett Q & A Part II, January '05

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