This has been a season of change for Washington State. From the very first day of practice, Cougar fans knew they weren't in Hawaii anymore Toto. Or Beloit. This WSU team was going to be different, and it has been. In a season of adjustments, the biggest might just be the changes that have overtaken the head coach. Tony Bennett has shown this year he's willing to try new things, new plans, new ways of doing things if it might help his team succeed. Has it? To a degree. The Cougars are in the postseason after all. And probably won a couple games they shouldn't have. After losing a couple. We decided to look at the change that's manifested itself in Bennett this season, talking with him and others about it. Read on for the album version of the story. The 45 will appear in tomorrow's S-R, and if you understand that, you're too darn old.
• Here's the story …
PULLMAN – The whistle blew. Play stopped. Official Bill Kennedy walked toward the scorer's table. He held up one finger, indicating the foul was on Washington State freshman scorer Klay Thompson, his fourth.
And WSU coach Tony Bennett reacted. Aggressively. Or, as he called it, like a "raving lunatic."
Later Bennett, who prides himself on his poise, would sheepishly explain his vivid reaction late in a recent loss at the University of Washington.
"Maybe I'll look like an idiot when I look at the film," said Bennett after the game, "but I thought it was on (Nik) Koprivica. That's why I reacted the way I did, because I knew what (the call) meant."
If you think you're seeing more passion out of Bennett, you would be right. With many games in this 17-15 season coming down to a play or two, the grind has sharpened Bennett's edges. And put in motion changes.
Welcome to Tony Bennett, version 2.0.
In his third year as WSU's head coach, Bennett has evolved. He's had to. After two seasons with a mostly veteran group that cut its teeth under Bennett's father, Dick, the cast changed significantly. Though three seniors have played an integral role in the team's success, so have three freshmen. And with change comes uncertainty.
As the challenging season wore on – the Cougars lost three consecutive games twice, lost three two-point Pac-10 games at home, dropped five of six conference games midway through the year – Bennett realized the status quo wouldn't work.
Practice plans were altered. Coaching staff roles were tweaked. Goals were revamped. And Bennett has expressed himself on the sidelines more often.
"I tell coaches all the time, until you have to try to win with talent that isn't up to the level of your competition, you never get stretched," Dick Bennett said. "This year he had to stretch."
As Washington State opens National Invitation Tournament play tonight at St. Mary's, Bennett has been stretched into a different coach than he was even last year.
"The last two years I've had predominantly upperclassmen," Bennett said recently. "Our system was pretty well established. It was fine-tuning and it was pushing hard.
"This year, we had such a mix with our well-documented freshman-senior mix and there had to be more teaching and more adjusting as the season wore on."
Some of the adjustment was on court, with the Cougars attacking opponents differently as the season wore on. But most of it has been in practice – with more fundamentals – and behind the scenes, with an eye on this season and beyond.
For a variety of reasons, assistant coaches Ben Johnson and Ron Sanchez are spending more time on the road recruiting. Another assistant, Matt Woodley, has taken over more of the game preparation chores. And Bennett, when he can, is taking more time to evaluate recruits in person.
Whatever they are doing, it's admired by people in a position to understand.
Former Cougar coach George Raveling is enamored with the three freshmen who are playing extended minutes – Thompson, Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto.
"They all have the potential to be All-Pac-10 players," Raveling said. "When you're bringing in that level of talent, it says a lot about the stability of the program and the coaching staff's ability to evaluate talent."
And get that talent ready.
"Everybody in the (Pac-10) has tremendous respect for him and what he's done," said current Stanford assistant and long-time Santa Clara coach Dick Davey. "He's creative, his kids play hard. We take a lot of things from their films, things we like to use."
"Tony has the Good Housekeeping seal on the program now," Raveling said. "The fact he stayed is more important to the program than people realize."
Bennett had offers to coach elsewhere after last season, but decided Pullman is where he – and his family – wants to be. He's reiterated many times this season how comfortable he is coaching at WSU, where he has an opportunity to hone his craft.
"It's always been this way at Washington State in every sport," Bennett said. "It's not an excuse. You've gotta maximize the talent you have in your program and you have to work smartly and efficiently."
Still, despite drawbacks, this is where he wants to be.
"It's a wonderful community, it's a wonderful place to raise your kids," Bennett said. "It's about the right stuff."
Washington State was only a few plays from finishing in the Pac-10's upper division, with a midseason slump relegating the Cougars to the bottom half – and then to the NIT. But only one defeat still sticks in Bennett's craw.
"Oregon State is the one that really frustrated me, because we broke down in areas we practice every day," he said. "I thought we did some foolish things and lost our composure. And, after a really strong first half, we had a false sense of security. Maybe we thought we didn't have to do the little things that makes us successful."
It's the system Bennett has faith in.
"We sometimes say 'the hay's in the barn,' before we play," Bennett said. "It's a preparation game, our system, our style, our soundness. We try to eliminate losing."
Though much of the work is done before the tip, Bennett's most visible moments are after. And this season he's been more, well, visible.
"I've noticed that," said senior Daven Harmeling, who had two years under Dick and three under Tony. "It's been very fun to watch. For most of it I've been on the bench and been able to hear everything he says.
"He's let the officials get to him more than normal this year and maybe that's because of the dynamics of the team."
And it's more than his interaction with the officials.
"There have been more blowups," Harmeling said. "This season has been a real test for him because there have been times when he definitely got frustrated."
"This year we've eaten our share of humble pie," Bennett said. "Look, that adjusts you for life more than anything. Let's be real. We've had to fight, we go into every game knowing you're probably not going to out-talent your opponent, but you can compete. It's healthy."
If this year's been healthy, then next year might be downright rejuvenating.
"Next year, quite honestly, it will be a starting-over period," Bennett said. "I'll make no qualms about that. It will be a starting over, but in an exciting way, because you'll be a freshman and sophomore team, for the most part.
"It will certainly be challenging. We'll miss these (seniors). That will be hard. But there's a foundation that's going to be laid for a couple years down the road."
And another opportunity to stretch. To Tony Bennett 3.0.
• That's it for the story. Here's a quick look at tonight's game ...
WSU vs. St. Mary's
NIT first round
Time: 8 p.m.; TV: ESPN2
Records: WSU – 17-15 (8-10 in Pac-10); St. Mary's – 26-6 (10-4 in WCC)
Coaches: WSU – Tony Bennett; St. Mary's – Randy Bennett
Leading scorers: WSU – Taylor Rochestie, 13.2 ppg, Klay Thompson, 12.7, Aron Baynes, 12.5; St. Mary's – Patty Mills, 17.8; Diamon Simpson, 14.2, Omar Samhan, 13.8
Leading rebounders: WSU – Baynes, 7.4 rpg, Thompson, 4.2; St. Mary's – Samhan, 10.5; Simpson, 9.4
This-and-that: St. Mary's was 19-1 when Mills broke his wrist. He returned in the WCC tournament and has played three games. ... The winner will play the South Carolina/Davidson winner. If St. Mary's wins, it will host. WSU would have to travel. ... WSU is 4-3 in three other NIT appearances, the last in 1996. ... The teams have never played.
• That's it for this evening. We're headed to Oakland tomorrow, so we'll fill in with what we can, when we can. Until then …