Bennett to fans: Cougs climbing the hill

SEATTLE -– When Dick Bennett stepped down as coach of the Washington State men's basketball team last season, he told his successor, son Tony Bennett, there are two steps to building a nationally recognized program. The first is to become competitive, which the younger Bennett believes the Cougars have done. The second is to consistently go toe-to-toe with high-caliber teams.

"My dad left me the hard part," Bennett said in an interview last week before addressing a large crowd of Cougar faithful gathered at Salty's in Seattle for the annual season preview celebration.

Washington State's strength, Bennett said, is in the quality of depth, with point guard especially loaded in the form of veteran junior Derrick Low, Tulane transfer Taylor Rochestie and JC transfer Mac Hopson.

Hopson, a Portland product who comes to WSU from North Idaho College, is the first pure point guard the Cougars have had in several years. He's looked good in practice and gives the Cougars flexibility to periodically put Low and Rochestie at the two-guard spot.

In addition to Low, a two-year starter, Bennett returns two other cornerstones from the last two seasons: wing man Kyle Weaver and forward Robbie Cowgill.

Bennett said one youngster on the team who has looked especially good in practice so far is 6-8 sophomore forward Caleb Forrest, who arrived in Pullman weighing 202 and bulked to 228 with summer strength conditioning.

"He really is fearless," Bennett said. "He's deceptively fast and he's relentless. He can shoot the ball to stretch the defense and he can grab offensive rebounds. As a freshman, there were times where he was hanging on for dear life, and now he's got experience. He can mix it up with some big guys in the Pac-10."

Another intriguing youngster, 6-6 freshman guard Thomas Abercrombie, of Auckland, New Zealand, may be redshirted this season "but you kind of think about playing him when you watch him in practice," Bennett said.

Abercrombie led his high school to a first-place finish at the New Zealand High School Nationals. He averaged 20.5 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Bennett, the Pac-10's youngest coach at 37, also said sophomore forward Daven Harmeling, back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season, will surprise people. And 6-10 sophomore center Aron Baynes, who came on strong at the end of last season, should be fully recovered from ankle surgery in four weeks.

AT THE START OF WSU's, summer conditioning program, Bennett said, his players went to Sunnyside Park -- home of the biggest, steepest hill in Pullman.

Six consecutive sprints to the top found some losing their lunch, others on the verge of exhaustion. By the time fall workouts began Oct. 13, the team could handle 16 sprints up the hill.

During one grueling practice, a player was near the quitting point with two hill sprints remaining. Though all his teammates had finished their sets, each of his fellow Cougars came back to the bottom of the hill and sprinted the final two hills with him, encouraging him to keep going.

"And the last thing any of them wanted to do was more hills," Bennett said. "To me, that's a sign that the players aren't worried only about themselves -- they're worried about succeeding as a team."

ONE QUESTION THAT Bennett gets frequently is the Cougars' in-state recruiting outlook when Gonzaga and Washington are so prominent nationally.

No player on Washington State's roster is from the state of Washington, and only four of 15 are even from the West Coast: Chris Henry (Santa Ana, Calif.); Jeremy Cross (Vista, Calif.); Rochestie (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and Hopson (Portland).

There are two track records of success at Washington State with and without in-state players. Marv Harshamn relied heavily on in-state talent in the 60s, while legendary George Raveling brought in only four scholarship players from Washington in his 11 seasons at the helm. Kelvin Sampson had a mix during his tenure.

"I think the state goes in cycles," Bennett said. "But you always look in the Northwest. I want Northwest kids."

DINNER NOTES:

• Bennett told about a card his dad received in the winter of 2005 after he made national headlines for giving the finger to a Huskies home crowd. The card came with a Texas Tech logo and the handwriting of longtime friend Bobby Knight. "I've always admired and respected you as a coach," Knight wrote. "Now after doing what you did, you're the best!"

• Bennett said two student sections and possibily a third will be moved to the floor for home basketball games this season, providing the Cougars with a bigger home-court advantage.

• Washington State women's team coach Sherri Murrell said she and Bennett are so eager for the season to begin they were diagramming plays on the barf bag of the airplane from Pullman to Seattle.

• Washington State director of athletics Jim Sterk told the Salty's crowd that contributions to the Cougar athletics have increased from $3.7 million in 1997 to $6.1 million last year.

• Crimson faithful donated $13,500 at the dinner from live and silent auction items. The highest bid item was a package with two behind-the-bench tickets to watch the Cougars play Washington in Seattle, and a gift certificate to the Ram restaurant in University Village. The package sold for $2,500.

• The Cougars open the season with an exhibition game Sunday against Central Washington. • Master of ceremonies for the event was Bud Nameck, a member of the Cougar football radio broadcast team and the voice of Cougar basketball.


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