Bennett puts hoops season into context

The 2007-08 basketball season has been a strange one for Washington State supporters. In fact, one could argue that it has been the strangest season in the 107-year history of Cougar basketball -- and almost entirely in a good way. Also, for the final two road games of the regular season, Cougar fans can start getting their money's worth out of those high-def TVs.

Washington State, a program that had not been nationally ranked in 14 years until last season, has cracked both Top 25 polls every week this season. That included a stay at No. 4, the highest ranking in school history (no polls or NCAA existed when the 25-1 Cougars of 1916-17 were recognized as national champs by the Helms Foundation).

Two years removed from a 10th straight losing season, the Cougars are three wins shy of the greatest two-year run (50 wins) in school history. Attendance records have been shattered despite winter weather and road conditions that limited crowds at several games, and the Cougars appear likely to play in a second straight NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.

"Some people say, ‘Ah, don't even worry about it,'" WSU coach Tony Bennett said. "You hope in a league like this, if you go .500 or better (in the Pac-10), it would be good enough."

Still, Bennett stops short of saying the Cougars are a lock for the Big Dance. With three games left on their league schedule, the Cougars stand in third place at 9-6 and still have a mathematical (albeit virtually nonexistent) chance of tying for their first conference title since 1941.

That said, Oregon and Washington are tied for eighth (next to last) and can still catch WSU. If the Cougars finished up 0-4, including a loss in the Pac-10 tourney … well, Bennett doesn't want to take that chance heading into Selection Sunday.

"One more win would certainly help," Bennett said Tuesday at his weekly teleconferences.

A Pac-10 team has never been invited to the NCAA tourney after failing to post a winning record in conference play. Pac-10 supporters point out that the league has never been better and might be the best conference around.

AND YET, only three Pac-10 teams are currently ranked, and the No. 22 Cougars almost certainly will drop out of the polls if they go 0-2 on this week's road swing against two teams (California and Stanford) that each won in Pullman while missing a starter. WSU is 0-3 against the two other currently ranked Pac-10 teams (No. 4 UCLA and No. 8 Stanford) and 1-3 against all currently ranked teams, having beaten No. 24 Gonzaga early in the season.

"You're beating each other up," noted Bennett, referring to the Pac-10's home-and-home league schedule. "It seems like the league has gotten a little more notoriety this year than in years past...People understand how good it is, how well it did in the nonconference."

The senior-laden Cougars went 13-0 while playing an admittedly weak nonconference schedule. It won't be easy for the 21-6 Cougars to match last season's 26-8 record, but Bennett says now as he did at the start of the season this year's team might be better than the 2006-07 crew that tied the school record for victories that has stood since 1940-41.

"I think in some ways we might be a little better ball club, I really do," Bennett said, "though the record in the conference doesn't indicate that."

Last season, the Cougars' 13-5 league record and second-place finish were the best at WSU since the 1982-83 squad went 14-4 and came in second. Ivory Clark was the only regular senior starter on last year's team, and Bennett acknowledges that the springy forward has been missed.

"He could clean up some things at the rim," Bennett said. "That element of athleticism, that is probably not there as much."

THE PAC-10 STANDINGS are so tightly bunched, Washington State has yet to clinch one of the first-round byes that top-six Pac-10 finishers receive in the conference tournament March 12-15 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A victory Thursday at California (8 p.m., FSN) would do the trick.

"I think every team in this league could make a case to say, ‘You know what? We could be three games better than our record shows, or maybe we could be two or three games worse,'" Bennett said.

Asked if Cougar fans have come to expect too much from their basketball team, Bennett said, "We're just trying to do what we can do. You work hard to get those kinds of expectations for your program, so in a way that's good … we have great support, and I think people realize how good this league is and what we're trying to do.

"We're just trying to scrap like crazy and position ourselves to play our best basketball down the stretch. You've got to control your 'controllables.'" Bennett smiled before adding, "It's a great league for spectators and fans. For the coaches, it's a nightmare."

THE THREE REMAINING regular season games for the Cougs will all be televised.

Both of this week's games -- Thursday at Cal and Saturday's contest at Stanford, will be available in High Definition on FSN HD.

The regular season ending March 8 game against Washington in Pullman will be on FSN-NW for most of the Evergreen State. It will not be seen on FSN in the Oregon/SW Washington market due to what Fox termed a scheduling conflict, but it can be seen live on the Fox College Sports channel in those areas.

  • In regard to the media banter suggesting he could bolt for the Indiana job, Bennett said to the Seattle Times' Bud Withers the other day; "I'm not going to comment on anything that doesn't pertain to our season. That's all you're going to get out of me."

  • Bennett said Tuesday that the Cougars have not committed to playing in a tournament next season, nor has a decision been made on whether to host another tourney in Spokane. The inaugural event in November drew poorly on Apple Cup weekend. Bennett said the Cougars will again play a "home" game at Seattle's KeyArena, but an opponent has not been picked. Gonzaga and Baylor are top attractions on next season's nonconference slate in Pullman.

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