Bennett talks wingspans, recruiting & more

THE NEW-FOUND success of Washington State's basketball program was illustrated last week by some non-descript folks who were on the sidelines watching practice. Andy Katz, the national analyst from ESPN, was there. And so were some NBA scouts who wanted to check out senior stars Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low.

"What a difference a year makes," head coach Tony Bennett said Friday in Seattle at the Cougars' annual basketball preview dinner -- an event that itself illustrated how far the Cougs have come. It netted $38,000 more than last year's dinner.

The Cougars just started practicing on Oct. 13, but it's clear the veterans are out to prove something, Bennett said. "They are so hungry. They don't want to leave as a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder. They want to leave here having established a program."

The Cougars are widely picked to be a top 10 team. The Pac-10, though, is perhaps the toughest league in the nation, top to bottom, Bennett said, noting that Katz told him he believes nine conference teams have the talent to warrant a berth in the NCAA tournament.

IN BOTH THE PRE-DINNER reception and the Q&A portion of the dinner, 6-11, 230-pound freshman Fabian Boeke was a popular topic. Bennett noted that the big German has a wingspan stretching a whopping 7-feet, 4 inches -- a full inch more than one of the Cougs' all-time all-arm guys, Ivory Clark.

Bennett says Boeke possesses a nice shooting touch but needs to work on his speed and strength. "Aron Baynes is kicking his butt everyday in practice," Bennett chuckled. Baynes is a junior who stands 6-10 but outweighs Boeke by 40 pounds. "Right now all of our freshmen are just trying to survive. They look a little lost. Our juniors and seniors are so far ahead of them."

Speaking of Clark, the lone senior from last season's team, is back on campus wrapping up his degree, Bennett said. A frequent question for Bennett was his plan for replacing Clark's 53 blocked shots and electrifying slam dunks. "We don't have a replica Ivory Clark," he said. But he believes a committee approach, led by a healthy and vastly improved Baynes, junior Caleb Forrest (an outstanding offensive rebounder), and senior Robbie Cowgill -- "our most athletic interior guy" -- will fill the void. It won't be filled in the same way, with the same style points, but it will be filled.

BENNETT SAID LAST season's 26 wins will "catapult" the Cougs into the new campaign, in large part because they've established "a legitimate home court advantage." He related how he and his wife Laurel, in their first year on campus, attended the Jay Leno concert at Beasley. The place was packed. He told Laurel that someday the arena would be filled the same way for Cougar basketball. He said he told that story to his players in the locker room last season just before the game with Gonzaga. "I told them that today is THE day."

Indeed, the 10,755 fans on hand for the Cougs' 77-67 win over the Zags was the largest hoops crowd in Pullman since 1995. The seats have been filled ever since and the noise off the charts.

In perhaps the most welcomed comment of the night, Bennett said, "My wife and I -- we love Pullman. We're not going anywhere. So Jim (Sterk), you could have gotten me for a lot less."

Bennett signed a contract extension over the summer that pays him an average of $600,000 per season through the 2013-14 campaign.

On the recruiting front, Bennett said last season's success has opened more doors, but he noted that while the caliber of the athletes coming in may be greater than in the past, they must possess the same drive and character as the Lows, Weavers and Cowgills of the world, and then continue to develop once they're in the program. Bennett said he has a picture of Rocky Balboa up in his office because the program is all about the underdog, fighter mentality. "If you don't want to embrace that, don't come here," he tells recruits.

The Cougs are having greater recruiting success in the Pacific Northwest, Bennett said, but cautioned that Gonzaga and Washington remain the marquee schools for local youngsters. To help gain ground on them, as well as the rest of the Pac-10, WSU needs to continue investing in facilities upgrades. Getting new locker rooms at Beasley is a top priority, he said.


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