A GRIP ON SPORTS
Remember that scene in "Titanic" when the lookout spies the iceberg, yells down a warning from his perch and they try to turn the ship out of harm's way? Me too. But I bet you're asking yourself, "What does that have to do with sports?" Read on.
• If you happened to be monitoring social media yesterday afternoon when Virginia pulled away from Syracuse for a 75-56 victory, securing the ACC regular season title, you were confronted with many Washington State basketball fans lamenting the success of one Tony Bennett. You may remember Bennett. He's the guy who actually won in his stint as WSU's basketball coach. That doesn't happen very often. But five years ago he left Pullman after a quick dalliance with Virginia and some Cougar fans have never forgiven him. They may cite the secretive nature of his departure as the reason but, deep down, that's not it. The school and the coach seemed a perfect fit, a match made in heaven, and he left. It was not unlike a sudden and out-of-the-blue divorce. And it was the Cougar fans who were blindsided. Should they have been? Maybe not, but love is blind, right? Anyhow, the lack of success the past five years certainly hasn't helped them get past it. WSU basketball fans see Bennett's success in Virginia, look at Ken Bone's lack of same in Pullman and start pulling their hair out. And blaming Bone. But that's misplaced anger. Yes, it's not Bone's fault. It's Jim Sterk's. If you want to blame anyone for Washington State's basketball fall from grace, blame the former athletic director. When Sterk hired Dick Bennett more than a decade ago to rescue a program made irrelevant by Paul Graham, it was a brilliant move. The elder Bennett had a rebuilding plan that was Frank Lloyd Wright-like. The architecture was perfect. Bennett's system was built upon recruiting kids few other programs, especially in the Northwest, would target or even worry about. Sure, they had to have some skills, but it was more about toughness and the willingness to sacrifice within a system that valued defense and offensive execution. Guys whose sole focus was windmill dunks need not apply. With a talent pool that was different than what Washington or Oregon or other West Coast mid-level powers were drawing from, WSU was able to attract players that could help it win. And the Cougars did, especially during Tony's three seasons following his father's retirement. But when Bennett hightailed it back east, Sterk made a huge misstep. Don't misinterpret this: Ken Bone was – and is – a fine basketball coach. He just wasn't the right fit at Washington State when he was hired. His style of basketball, the style that allowed him to win at Seattle Pacific and Portland State, didn't fit with the players Washington State had in its program or on the way. It was, in reality, a 180-degree turn from what Dick Bennett envisioned. Guys like Marcus Capers and DeAngelo Casto and Xavier Thames were defense-first players. When Bone walked in, they weren't a good fit – and there was a huge question if they ever would. Sure, Klay Thompson was in Pullman, but he had come with idea that the Bennett way would help make him NBA ready. And Brock Motum was a scoring machine waiting for the right guy to turn the key, but no one knew that then. What Bone was faced with was a lot like turning the Titanic. It wasn't going to happen quickly and the question was, could he survive if he hit an iceberg? The answer, as we see now, is no. And that's Sterk's mistake. He set up Bone for failure. That's probably part of the reason he gave Bone a multi-million dollar, seven-year guaranteed contract. He wanted to give him time to recruit his type of players. There is only one problem. It's hard to get enough of Bone's type of players to come to Pullman. They would rather go elsewhere. It's been that way for years. So Sterk would have been better served to take his time and find a coach who would have kept the Cougars on the path Dick Bennett charted. A guy like Archie Miller, maybe, then just a young assistant coach for Thad Matta at Ohio State but already a Bennett disciple. After helping brother Sean rebuild Arizona's fortunes, he's doing OK at Dayton. By picking someone who was all-in with the way Washington State was playing, the type of players they were recruiting, the course the program was following, then the culture shock could have been mitigated and the program may have continued to excel. Now, five years later, the whole ship will have to be salvaged from the depths to which it has sunk. And that won't be easy. Try as one might, it's hard to see another Dick Bennett out there.
• WSU: The Cougars are off this weekend but Jacob Thorpe isn't. He has this morning post to keep you up-to-date on the happenings in the Pac-12. ... The Cougar women didn't even come close to breaking their long losing streak to Stanford. ... Want a movie fix? Then read John Blanchette's column today.
• Gonzaga: I don't know if you took the time to watch Gonzaga's win over St. Mary's last night, but if you did you saw a butt-kicking of the first order. I don't believe I've seen one like that in Moraga in a long, long time. Jim Meehan was there and filed this game story and blog post. He will also have a day-after post sometime today. ... By the way, the crowd mike last night picked up a Gael student lamenting "Gonzaga isn't this good" at one point. The despair in his voice was easy to discern. ... The Zag women also won yesterday, though their 81-77 victory on Senior Day was a lot tougher. Thomas Clouse has the story and Tyler Tjomsland adds the photographs. ... Back to the men, this really is a season of transition for St. Mary's, as last night's rout shows. ... Speaking of transition, why hasn't USF transitioned to a new coach? A lot of the players have transitioned right off campus. ... Santa Clara got past Pepperdine, 86-78. ... Short-handed Portland lost at Pacific, 68-65. ... BYU held off San Diego, 78-70 and clinched the WCC's second seed. The Toreros run of mediocrity continues.
• EWU: This one might hurt a lot. The Eagles had a chance to be the first Big Sky to sweep a road weekend but fell, 69-67, on a last-second outback by North Dakota. But missing 13 free throws, including the first six, probably hurt Eastern's chances of winning more than not grabbing the final rebound. ... Montana had no trouble with Southern Utah. ... Both Northern Arizona and Portland State earned huge wins on the road over Weber State and Northern Colorado, respectively.
• Idaho: The Vandals got killed on the boards and lost, 76-68 at Seattle U. last night. Josh Wright has more in this blog post. ... Josh also has another post with news concerning the Vandals' 2014 footballs schedule.
• Whitworth: The Whitworth men did the expected, holding off Puget Sound 71-68 and earning an NCAA berth. Thomas Clouse has the story. ... The Whitworth women did the unexpected, upsetting No. 1 Whitman 68-65 and also earning an NCAA berth.
• Chiefs: Where is the Chiefs' offense? Certainly not at the Arena last night as Tri-City broke a long losing streak with a 3-0 win. Chris Derrick has the story on the defeat along with a blog post. ... It's over. After 21 consecutive victories, Portland lost last night, 4-1 at Seattle.
• Preps: There were so many high school basketball games yesterday I lost count after I ran out of fingers. So we'll start with the Idaho state wrestling championships story. ... To pass along the basketball stories, we'll list the state qualifiers. They got either to Tacoma, Yakima or Spokane by winning yesterday. They are: Pullman boys, East Valley girls, Gonzaga Prep boys, Gonzaga Prep girls, Colfax girls, Lind-Ritzville/Sprague boys, Northwest Christian girls, Northwest Christian boys, Three Rivers Christian girls and the Colton girls. We also have a roundup of all the other schools who qualified. ... Washington's high school basketball coaches ripped the WIAA yesterday for the way the state tournament is being administered these days.
• Community colleges: A win and then a proposal. A perfect day at the national junior college wrestling tournament (pictured). Mike Vlahovich has the story.
• Mariners: There is good news out there. Really. The M's won again yesterday in a game shortened to seven innings by rain. Scott Baker threw well. And Danny Hultzen is working his way back after shoulder surgery. ... Of course, there is bad news too. Both Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma will probably start the season on the disabled list. ... Who should the M's add to their roster? Robinson Cano has some suggestions.
• Sounders: Though the Sounders ended the preseason undefeated after a 2-2 tie with D.C. United, they didn't win a cup. And DeAndre Yeldin rolled his ankle. ... Sigi Schmid, as is his way, had a lot to say after the match. He isn't unhappy with the preseason. ... Clint Dempsey played the entirety of his final game in England.
• That's a lot for a Sunday. But you may just have the time to digest it. We'll be back tomorrow. Until then ...