Last March, when Washington’s Brandon Roy was lighting up Illinois and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison was lying on the floor crying over a Sweet 16 loss, Washington State players were licking their wounds from a last-place finish in the Pac-10.
My, how things have changed.
Fast forward nine months, and it’s Washington State that has the strongest claim on the title of best team in the Evergreen State.
At 12-2, the Cougars are off to their best start since the 1991-92 season and beat Gonzaga 77-67 on Dec. 5. Four days later, Gonzaga pounded Washington 97-77. The Cougars are even receiving votes for The Associated Press Top 25 — a list they’ve been excluded from since February 1983.
“We’ve played competitive basketball, but we’ve yet to become successful,” coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s up to us this year to continue to be competitive and take another step toward success.”
It’s difficult to think of the job the Bennetts, Tony and his father/predecessor Dick, have accomplished thus far as anything short of success.
When Dick Bennett — who led Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000 — gave up retirement to take over at Washington State, the program had posted seven consecutive losing seasons, had finished in last place five of the previous six years and had won just 13 games the previous two years combined.
The Cougars won at least 11 games in each of the elder Bennett’s three seasons before he turned the keys over to Tony, who at 37, became the Pac-10’s youngest coach. (Arizona State’s Herb Sendek is the second youngest at 43.)
“I think there are many common threads, more similarities than differences,” said Sendek, who will lead his Sun Devils into Pullman tonight. “You can see a real continuity, a real consistency, that I think they’ve been able to build on.”
It would be easy to dismiss Washington State’s hot start.
After all, the Cougars won nine of their first 12 games last year, including a 78-71 win over 12th-ranked Washington in Seattle. But sophomore guard Derrick Low, then the team’s leading scorer, broke a bone in his right foot and the team lost six straight.
It was the first of two six-game losing streaks for the Cougars, who spiraled into a 10th-place conference finish.
With Low healthy again, Washington State has proven a dangerous foe. Last week, the Cougars dropped a 55-52 decision at No. 1 UCLA, then pulled out a 58-55 win at Southern California.
Low led the team in scoring in both games.
The strong showing in Los Angeles sent the message that Low and the Bennetts have Washington State on track to receive its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1994.
“During my father’s three years here, he kind of stopped the bleeding,” Tony Bennett said. “His words to me (upon retirement) were, 'I wish I could’ve left it at a better spot, but I hope I’ve at least given you a fighting chance.’ We’ve got a fighting chance.”