Rapid-fire hoops talk with Tony Bennett

AS COUGAR COACHING tradition goes, Tony Bennett doesn't talk as fast as Jim Walden, Bobo Brayton or John Chaplin. But he matches up well with George Raveling. And good thing. With one of the most-talked-about teams of the last NCAA basketball season and, perhaps more saliently, the upcoming one, he's in high demand. So when the second-year coach returns your call, you better be armed and ready.

So it was the other day on the eve of the first basketball practice of the new season.

In less time than it takes Kelvin Sampson to come up with a mildly plausible excuse for thumbing his nose at the NCAA rulebook, we managed to exchange pleasantries and fill the phone line with Cougar hoops talk.

Six minutes. Six questions. And six answers from Tony Bennett ...

From big underdog to big favorite -- how's it feel?
Bennett: Uncharted, at least right now. But once the season starts it all fades away. It's all about hard work and playing together as a team.

Your freshmen -- what do you like most?
Bennett: I like the same things about them that I like about our returning players –- they're team-first guys with a lot of character and the willingness to do whatever it takes to help. That makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In terms of skills, they bring great versatility ... If things go well, we won't have to throw them in the fire like we had to with the older guys -– they can have a more normal freshman season.

Is it possible to promote two guys (Low and Weaver) for All-America honors without sinking the chances of both?
Bennett: All I know is that if the team does well, those two will be a big part of it and will get the attention they need for honors like that. Playing quality basketball establishes your reputation, not a Heisman-type onslaught of publicity.

Is anyone on the verge of a breakout season?
Bennett: I can't pin that down to one guy. Last year we had different guys step up at different times. We bring back six players with a lot of Pac-10 experience –- three seniors and three juniors. My hope is that everyone is a year older and a year better ... Aron (Baynes) and Taylor (Rochestie) were in difficult places last year at this time because of injuries. As they improved physically over the course of the season, they became big contributors. This year we're going to have them at 100 percent from day one.

What Pac-10 player from last year are you happiest to see gone?
Bennett: Two guys stand out, both for the quality of their play and the number of seasons they were around. Aaron Brooks (Oregon/Rockets) gave me nightmares for four years and Arron Afflalo (UCLA/Pistons) for three.

Pac-10 basketball 2007-08 -- how good?
Bennett: Excellent. You look at who's coming back, who's coming in and who's now eligible or back from injury and it's clear just how good the Pac-10 is. One key player here and there can mean all the difference ... UCLA, USC, all across the league you find quality.

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