With 12 wins, Cougars off to best start in 15 years

Tony Bennett doesn't agree with the theory that the best thing during a dream is the exact moment when you exist between being asleep and awake, when you truly feel fantasy is reality.

He always prefers the truth.

"Know your personnel and what they can and can't do," he said. "Don't try and make them do things they're not capable of doing. Ask yourself as a coach, 'What can they handle?' A year or two ago, they couldn't handle much."

They can now, a major reason those preseason forecasts of more gloom on the basketball court for Washington State than in the skies above Pullman appear more and more ludicrous with each victory.

The team picked to finish 10th in the Pac-10 is off to its best start in 15 years, having already won more games than all of last season. The program no one gave a second glance is nearing its first Top 25 ranking since 1983 at 12-2 overall. The team thought miles and miles from competing with the conference's best opened league play last week by scaring the blue and gold out of No. 1 UCLA on its home court and winning at USC two days later.

It was supposed to happen this way, and yet no one dared to predict it based on so many unproductive seasons of late. Bennett is a first-year head coach in title only, having assumed the role from his father, Dick. He played under his father, coached under his father and learned how to build a program from his father (recruiting and preparation comes before the foundation and framing and fancy window treatments). He watched his father over the years spin more straw into gold with downtrodden programs than your average fairly-tale munchkin.

It was supposed to happen this way because all those freshmen and sophomores who struggled last year are now sophomores and juniors better for the experience, because each one continues to slide through life in a permanent defensive stance, and you just knew more of those jumpers would eventually begin falling.

"The transition in coaches has been really smooth because we've known coach Bennett for so long," said junior guard Kyle Weaver. "None of us had to worry or be concerned about not fitting in with a new staff. It's easy to forget sometimes this is his first year as the head coach. He's doing a really good job. Not much at all is different. He probably gives us a little more freedom to take shots early in a clock or attack the basket if they're good decisions.

"There is a fine line between telling us how good we can be and also motivating us to buckle down every day and work to get better. He understands when to push us. Every day, he brings energy and excitement. Slowly, our program is starting to turn some heads."

Arizona State visits Thursday night and a Cougars victory would tie their highest season win total in a decade. Arizona visits on Saturday and a victory would turn more heads than Scarlett Johansson on a red carpet.

It's a different WSU team this season in that there is more depth with the addition of a contributing player like freshman guard Nikola Koprivica from Serbia, different in that the team's best player (junior guard Derrick Low) is finally healthy after missing time his first two seasons with foot injuries. It's different in that the Cougars are making more shots (fourth among Pac-10 teams in shooting overall and first in 3-point percentage) and are all but even on the boards.

It's not different in that they will only win as many games as their defense dictates, games like the one against San Diego State a few weeks ago, when WSU trailed by 10 at halftime and then held the Aztecs scoreless for more than 10 minutes before running away and winning 64-54.

"They have built a program much the same way Air Force has, going out and getting a lot of high school kids and getting a little better every year," said San Diego State assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb. "[Tony Bennett] has really given them a sense of confidence. They believe they're going to win every game. He's also not afraid to play his bench like other coaches tend to be, to play 11 or 12 guys if he needs them on a given night.

"They're running some different things offensively under him. He has some NBA sets in there now. He ran some things against us we had not seen on tape. They're a little more athletic but not much else has changed. He isn't afraid to take chances where as his father might have been a little more engrained into what he would do. He's just another in a long line of really good coaches from the state of Wisconsin -- Dick Bennett, Bo Ryan, Bruce Pearl. Those are all such quality coaches and Tony is the next one. They're guys who just recruit players to their particular systems and win."

He has seen it happen so many times with his father. Tony Bennett was an assistant under him when Dick took Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. He played under him at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where the Phoenix were 4-24 the season before Dick Bennett arrived in 1985 and had a winning record two years later and were 24-8 in 1990 and 24-7 in '91, when Tony helped lead the program into its first NCAA Tournament.

The younger Bennett has seen what can happen when you have some patience and remember that the roofing comes before the siding and the siding comes before the electrical and the electrical comes before the plumbing and so on.

"I watched and learned from my Dad for so many years, this just feels like a natural progression for me," said Bennett, 37. "He laid the foundation for all of this. We're off to a solid start, but for us to have any chance, we have to keep defending in the half court as well as we possibly can. That's the backbone of this program.

"Our guys can't ever lose sight of who we are. They have to remain humble, and yet being picked [10th] in conference certainly can be used to motivate them to prove we're better than that.

"You know, I listened to some of the guys from Boise State's [football team] after their [BCS] win against Oklahoma the other night. They talked about heart, about the ability to find guys who never give up and want to compete against the so-called big boys. That stuff can happen here. I'm not going to limit what we can do in this program. We have to embrace the strengths of this place and find five guys on the floor at any given time all buying into what we want. It can be done here. We can do some really good things."

As beginnings go, it's some dream.

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.