Bennett: tough pre-season; loves being a Coug

TONY BENNETT enjoyed a two-minute standing ovation in front of appreciative WSU fans at the King County Cougar Golf Classic at the posh Golf Club at Newcastle and then dropped a bombshell. Although it hasn't been made final, Bennett said WSU is tentatively scheduled to play in a tournament that includes powerhouses Pitt, Texas Tech and Mississippi State. Plus, there's a trip to Baton Rouge.

In addition, the Cougs will host Gonzaga and Baylor in Pullman.

"We're going to play our toughest ever non-conference schedule," Bennett said. "(Assistant) coach (Ron) Sanchez said let's throw our young kids in the fire and see where our program is at. We're going to find out and test these guys and prepare them for Pac-10 play."

The Cougs will travel to New Jersey over Thanksgiving for the Legends Classic.

The matchup with LSU is tentatively set for Dec. 27 in Baton Rouge. It's part of a home-and-home deal, which means LSU will be coming to Pullman in the 2009-10 season. The preseason schedule also includes a game against Montana State at KeyArena in Seattle on Dec. 13.

No opponent has been inked yet for the Cougs' home game the weekend of the Apple Cup football game, which also is in Pullman this year.

Sanchez said all the paperwork hadn't quite been completed, but he expected the schedule to be finalized and officially announced sometime in June.

BENNETT, WHOSE two-year record at WSU is 52-17 and includes back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament, turned down several lucrative offers to stay at WSU after last season's trip to the Sweet 16.

"The special thing about being a Coug is that when things go well it's appreciated and celebrated more than anywhere else," Bennett said. "And I think when you're struggling and trying to rebuild the program, Cougs are more patient and understanding. That's what makes this place great."

Bennett said the decision to stay, which earned him a contract worth $1 million annually, was ultimately an easy one.

"I can't tell you how many warm letters I got from people who said thanks for staying," Bennett said. "I say thanks to (athletic director) Jim Sterk. He took a chance on an unproven head coach. This is where I belong and I love being here. This place is special and we want to keep building it."

Sterk said Bennett's contract includes a $500,000 buyout that goes down over time.

"People were telling him last year that you can't win consistently at Washington State," Sterk said. "I think he's determined to prove them wrong. He obviously had other significant revenue opportunities, but he likes what's going on. It was important for him that we got back to the tournament this year and made a deeper run in it. Now he wants to get back and made an even deeper run."

Bennett had brief phone conversations in March with representatives from Indiana and LSU, and had feelers from Oklahoma State.

WSU LOSES THREE four-year starters in Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low and Robbie Cowgill, but Bennett sees a bright future thanks to a strong incoming class.

"We're losing three really good players who were a huge part of our success," Bennett said. "We're going to miss them. It will be a challenge, but I think we're up to it. I'm excited about our recruiting class. It's good."

The class includes 6-foot-8 forward DeAngelo Casto, the Washington State player of the year who led Ferris to back-to-back undefeated seasons. Other top recruits include Marcus Capers of Montverde, Fla., Michael Harthun of Medford, Ore., Klay Thompson of Santa Margarita, Calif., James Watson of Stringtown, Okla. and Nick Witherill of Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Our class is very athletic and very talented," Bennett said. "But they are freshman and I think it will take a little time. But if they develop at the rate the other guys did, good things are on the horizon."

Even with WSU enjoying its highest national ranking ever (No. 4 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' Poll) in a season that ended 26-9 with a loss in the Sweet 16 to North Carolina, Bennett spoke of other bright spots.

"One of the things I"m really proud of is that if when we first got here if we had a crowd of more than 3,000 people we were excited," Bennett said. "This year we were third in the league in attendance at Beasley Coliseum."

Bennett also liked the way his team performed in the classroom. "Another big highlight was having five guys on the All-Pac-10 Academic team," Bennett said. "Robbie Cowgill, Daven Harmeling and Taylor Richestie were first team and Aron Baynes and Nikola Koprivica were second team."

Bennett also expects both Weaver and Low to represent WSU well in the NBA draft.

"Weaver is projected right now to be a late first-rounder or early second-round pick," Bennett said. "I think Low also has a chance and that would be great for our program. NBA general managers call and it's so good to be able to talk to people and say 'these are guys with character.'"

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