Husky Head Coach Bob Bender

In talking candidly with Men's Basketball Head Coach Bob Bender in his office inside the Bank of America Arena, it's obvious that he's very excited about his team's electric 5-1 start to the 2001-02 basketball season. Washington has several new faces on the roster that have played prominent roles already, which has Husky fans buzzing about the potential of his squad.

"It's been a good start. We needed, obviously, to get off to a winning start to build confidence. The encouraging thing is that we are getting better every game. Results are bearing that to be true. But, most importantly, we are getting better," said Bender when describing how quickly his team has gotten out of the blocks in 2001.

The Husky coach believes that his young team had a chance to gel by playing under a less of a fishbowl atmosphere when they opened their season at the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska.

"I think the way that the schedule has been laid out has been beneficial to us. I think it is better that we started out on the road going to Fairbanks rather than the pressure of starting at home. With a group made up of some new kids, we were able to concentrate more, with fewer distractions. There was a lot of hype that was going to be happening when we did get home, so as I look back on going to Fairbanks, it was actually beneficial."

The Huskies' lone defeat so far this season came in a game where they were ahead by as many as 18 points, only to end up losing to a very tough Butler squad by three.

"Certainly, our one loss is one that we would like to have back. There are going to be times this season that we have something that may not end up perfectly, but I think the overall effect is that it is a better learning experience for us. And that is how we have handled it. I have been proud of the kids that looked at it that way," said Bender.

"We are just so much quicker in all spots and are able to do some things because of it. We are a deeper team. The depth has been something that has been there since day one of practice, which has made everything more competitive. That is better for us."

Even though this team of youngsters doesn't have a lot of experience, they are sure full of exuberance.

"I felt like there hasn't been one game yet of the six where we came out flat or weren't ready. Hopefully, that is an indication of a lot of young kids bringing enthusiasm. We maybe haven't handled very well, execution-wise, the more technical parts of what we expect, but that is probably a result of inexperience. But, on the other hand, we haven't had a down mental part of the game yet. So, surprisingly, there is some consistency there, and that is not what you would normally expect at this point in the season," said Bender.

It is difficult staying calm on the bench when one of your young athletic guards attempts an alley-oop pass that ends up in the fourth row of the crowd. If he pulls it off, the homers go wild. If not, the coaches are jumping up and down on the sidelines in horror. And so goes walking the tightrope between allowing your athletes to be aggressive, but still play within themselves and the team concept.

"I don't want to stifle their aggressiveness," said Bender, "so there is a fine line."

Bender is willing to give his young players a little more leeway on the offensive end of the court.

"If somebody gets into a horrible stretch of turning it over individually, we have to make substitutions based on that. But, for the most part, I don't want to take them out after one mistake because I think that would really be detrimental to where we need to be when we get into January and into the Pac-10 season."

Bender will be more forgiving of mistakes when they come from trying too hard.

"There is that difference between being passive and making unforced turnovers and being aggressive and trying to make something happen. As a coach, you just have to have that ability to back off when needed, but certainly be able to explain things. We have to get them to understand game situations, such as time possession and score. But, on the other hand, you don't want to stifle them," said Bender.

With all of the excitement about the athleticism shown by this team on offense, it is the defense that still holds the coach's interest.

"The defensive end is our first priority. And, if we don't play hard defensively, individually, that is when you will be substituted for. You might make some mistakes offensively, but we will let people play through that."

He believes that the teams' athleticism and depth are the primary factors in their 5-1 record. Those factors also afford the coach the luxury of making substitutions that maybe wouldn't have happened in the past.

"That has kept our level of play up. If maybe a guy is feeling that he is so important to the offense that he can cruise on the defensive end, we are able to address that pretty quickly through substitutions."

The new-look Huskies are able to play at a much quicker tempo than in the past. They averaged just over 81 points in their 5 wins and have allowed their opponents an average of 69 points for the season.

"I still think we are giving up a lot of points, but we play really good defense in spurts and we need to extend that. But, the numbers that we are scoring right now, I think are pretty good. We had 98 against San Diego. That is certainly a lot of points. I don't know that we will play at that level every game, but we are capable of it. Our athleticism helps us in that regard."

Even though the Huskies have out-rebounded their competition by a 4.5 margin, Bender believes that is one area that needs addressing.

"Our athleticism hasn't had a great impact on our rebounding. We just aren't rebounding the ball well. We have to go back and really demand more of a fundamental approach to rebounding, rather than just relying on the ability to run and jump."

Bender appreciates the attitude of his young team and their eagerness to take on their next opponent no matter which team it is.

"The beauty of this team is they really just look forward to playing. They were really hyped about playing UNLV. But, we have to go back out on the road. This is a real good challenge of a week of preparation, it very much mirrors a Pac-10 road trip, because we play Thursday and Saturday."

The team is leaving on Wednesday to take on Texas-El Paso on Thursday and New Mexico State on Saturday.

"I am anxious to see how we react to that. We've been on the road for an extended time for the Fairbanks trip and a quick trip to San Diego. So, this will be exactly what we face in the Pac-10."

Husky fans should also be anxious to see how this season unfolds and should be excited about watching the growth of these young athletes, most of whom are from right in our own back yard.
Coming tomorrow: Part II - Bender comments on each Husky player on the team.

Part III will be a discussion of the recent success of in-state recruiting and the two high school players that have committed to the Huskies already this season.

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