Win And You Shall Receive

No. 4 Washington State earns highest ranking in school history


Tony Bennett has Wazzu enjoying its highest ranking in school history.

Dec. 27, 2007

By Josh Herwitt

CSTV.com

 

JOSH HERWITT
Josh is CSTV.com's men's basketball editor and writes a weekly national column.
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Maybe this was what Dick Bennett had planned all along.

 

Hey, maybe this was his way of seeing his legacy live on.

 

But for the former Wisconsin coach who left Washington State after two seasons in Pullman, handing the program over to his son, Tony, just might have been one of his greatest coaching decisions.

 

Well, it's certainly been a moment to remember for Cougar fans.

 

Because with the younger Bennett now at the helm, the Cougars have been one of college basketball's best-kept secrets as they continue to prove the skeptics wrong, those who don't get to see Washington State play due to regional television contracts and unavoidable time-zone differences.

 

There are even some, in fact, who refuse to commend the Cougars for their 26 wins, second-place finish in the Pac-10 and second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season, three giant accomplishments for a school that has never been known for its basketball program in the first place.

 

"It's certainly a little different," senior forward Robbie Cowgill admitted. "Part of this rebuilding process is getting people back to believing in Cougar basketball."

 

Now in 2007-08, that's what Tony Bennett has people in Pullman finally doing. The former Green Bay player, who hasn't even reached the age of 40 yet, has already managed to do what no other Washington State coach has ever been able to do.

 

That took place on Monday when the Cougars jumped up to No. 4 -- from the seventh position -- in this week's AP Top 25 poll and cracked the top five for the first time in school history.

 

"I told the guys, `You've established something,'" the 38-year-old Bennett remarked following last week's win over The Citadel in Seattle. "It's a great memory, probably one of the best memories I have."

 

At 11-0, the Cougars are off to their best start since the 1991-92 campaign when Wazzu opened the season at 12-0. This year's Washington State team, however, could match that mark Friday when it hosts North Carolina A&T before beginning conference play with a three-game road trip.

 

So if the Cougars can also get past in-state rival Washington and No. 24 USC next week, Washington State could still be undefeated and the highest ranked team in the Pac-10 when it heads to Westwood to face fifth-ranked UCLA Jan. 12.

 

Sure, the win over then-No. 19 Gonzaga in Spokane shows that WSU has the poise and experience to win in some hostile environments, but a victory against a team like UCLA (11-1), who happens to be coming off back-to-back trips to the Final Four, could really boost the Cougars' stock and demand some well overdue respect from the rest of the nation.

 

Bennett, of course, isn't putting his focus on a ranking with conference play not having started yet. After all, he knows it's been Ben Howland and his core group of veterans in Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute who have been a part of two Pac-10 championships over the last two years.

 

And with Kevin Love proving his ability to play well on the road with 17 points, including 9-of-10 shooting from the free throw line, and 16 rebounds in a win over Michigan last Saturday, the Bruins, as expected, will be right there with the Cougars for this year's conference crown.

 

"When you start Pac-10 play, it's just another animal," the second-year WSU coach explained. "The goal is trying to find our stride, trying to get our rotation as solid as we can."

 

That's because Wazzu isn't exactly a high-flying, high-octane team like second-ranked Memphis or No. 9 Texas. The Cougars, rather, play a methodical half-court game orchestrated by cerebral point man Derrick Low, the team's senior leader and leading scorer at 12.5 points per game.

 

Senior guard Kyle Weaver and 6-foot-10 post man Aron Baynes, meanwhile, are also solid contributors with double-digit scoring averages this season, but neither of them have the flare or pizzazz that a lot of players on top-ranked teams possess.

 

"We know we're not the kind of team that is going to blow people away if we're not playing at a high level," Bennett maintained after the Cougars crushed Idaho State, 75-45, last Saturday. "We know we can't take anyone lightly.

 

"We've struggled some times to start. We haven't been flying out of the gates too many times this year."

 

What matters most, though, is that the Cougars still haven't lost -- something that only eight other teams can say at this point in the season.

 

"I guess you take it anyway you can get it," Bennett asserted.

 

For now, at least, he will.

 

Quick Shots

 

·          Despite getting out-shot with a 46-percent clip from the field, Memphis took a big step last weekend in claiming an 85-71 victory over No. 8 Georgetown at the FedEx Forum. John Calipari at least thought so after beating a team that last year reached the Final Four, a place where the eighth-year coach believes his team can get to by the end of March.

 

"We scheduled [this] game on Dec. 22 because we're trying to learn about our team," Calipari said afterward. "But if you win it's a huge game. That's why it was."

 

·          Air Force has often been talked about in the past for its offensive prowess and efficiency, but it's the Falcons' defense this season that's been keeping opponents off-balanced. The Academy, in fact, leads the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense at just 54.7 points per game and ranks fifth nationally with four of its 12 opponents scoring under 50 points. At the other end of the court, Utah has lit it up from the perimeter all season long, ranking fourth nationally with a 51.6-percent field goal average for the year.

 

·          Following last Saturday's 83-74 win over Tennessee State, No. 15 Vanderbilt tied the program's second-best start in school history and now sits just one win away at 11-0 from tying what would be the Commodores' best start ever. But Kevin Stallings' ball club isn't getting carried away by looking ahead to SEC play next month. Vandy, don't forget, has what could be a better-than-advertised game against UMass on Jan. 5, and with the way the Minutemen are playing right now, it's no certainty that the Commodores will still be undefeated entering conference play just four days later.

 

"We try to take it one game at a time," said senior Shan Foster, who leads the team in scoring with 20.5 points per game. "We don't look forward at all. We're just focused on our next game. Once you start looking forward to games instead of improving, you have problems."

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