Bennett turns every stone in recruiting wars

BASKETBALL LETTERS OF intent will be signed a month from now and if everything goes as forecast, the proceedings will put an exclamation mark on Tony Bennett's reputation as a first-class recruiter. For perspective on just how good he is, consider what one prep prospect told us earlier this year: He was awestruck that Bennett and staff knew his favorite dessert and what music was in his CD player.

The research didn't extend to the color of the lad's backpack, but the point was clear. Bennett and his crew of coaches leave no stone unturned in their quest for the right talent.

A comment Bennett made last June -- when asked whether he agreed with the NCAA's ban on text messaging in the recruiting process –- offers a glimpse into his thinking. He said any avenue, such as unlimited text messaging, where nothing but hustle and hard work separate you from the competition is one he'd think twice about closing "because nobody is going to outwork Washington State."


When Marcus Capers, an uber-athletic guard from just outside Orlando, Fla., committed verbally last week to be part of the Cougars' 2008 recruiting class, he was succinct when asked why: "They showed the most love out of all the coaches and I felt comfortable with them and so did my mom and dad."

IN THE BEGINNING, when Bennett was a first-year WSU assistant under his legendary dad Dick, it was Derrick Low who offered the initial clue of the younger coach's recruiting prowess.

The Hawaiian native committed to WSU sight unseen -– he never stepped foot on the Pullman campus before making the pledge. Low and three other members of that first Bennett recruiting class -- Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill and Daven Harmeling -– were the foundation that resulted in the record-tying 26 wins the Cougs posted last season.

That initial class, as well as the next two, had no local flavoring, despite the fact the area is a fairly prodigious incubator of hoop talent. With Gonzaga, Oregon and Washington atop the regional pecking order, a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1996 was hard-pressed to register in the hearts and minds of the natives.

But Bennett has changed that as well.

Silky smooth shooter Abe Lodwick, out of Bend, Ore., is a Cougar freshman this season, as is 6-9 center/forward Charlie Enquist of Seattle.

Michael Harthun, the 22nd rated shooting guard in the nation, from Medford, Ore., is expected to join Capers in signing a letter of intent with WSU next month. And then there are the two super early verbal commitments from the state of Washington: Anthony Brown of Spokane and Ephrata man-child Patrick Simon. They will arrive in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

LOOKING AHEAD, THE program's prospects are bright and optimism is high. The past year found the Cougs in conversations with the kind of prospects they'd never had a shot at before.

In fact, the notion of WSU out-dueling Michigan or Notre Dame for a player would have been laughable before Bennett. But that's exactly who the Cougs beat to get Klay Thompson, a 6-6 forward with gobs of potential from California who will be in the class featuring Harthun, Capers, 6-3 guard Nick Witherill of Scottsdale, Ariz., and 6-8 power forward James Watson of Stringtown, Okla.

Make no mistake, though. Bennett is still dancing with the proverbial "one who brung him to the ball." More specifically, and regardless of star ratings, he wants high-character kids who are versatile and athletic -- and who will buy into his system that demands tough defense, serious hustle and a team-first attitude.

So while Bennett battled big-name schools for Thompson, his chief competition at the end for Watson was Missouri State. For Capers it was Virginia Commonwealth. For Harthun it was Oregon State and Pepperdine.

And for Witherill, it was just too early to tell -– Bennett saw what he wanted when the now-All-State performer was just a high school sophomore. He secured a verbal pledge from Witherill more than a year ago.

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