Tony Bennett: Expect some growing pains

THOMPSON (left) AND HARTHUN

PULLMAN -- Tony Bennett is the highest-paid employee in Washington State history, and he's going to earn every penny of his $1 million salary this season. After guiding veteran teams to 26-win seasons and NCAA Tourney appearances the past two years, he embarks on his third season as head basketball coach with the task of meshing 10 youngsters with two returning starters and three other lettermen.

Earlier this week, Bennett sat down at a Pullman eatery long enough to polish off a turkey sandwich and offer some food for thought on the 2008-09 Cougars, whose roster features seven true freshmen and three second-year freshmen.

Cougfan: How do preseason practices differ this year with so many new faces?

Bennett : A bunch of this fall has been trying to get them to understand some conceptual things. A little more teaching and instructing. When practice starts (full-time practices for full rosters start Oct. 17), we'll really get into fine tuning. We want to make sure our stuff's in so that we can really hit the ground running and then start emphasizing the soundness with the basketball, the toughness, the intangibles.

Cougfan: Do you have to be careful not to throw too much at one time at the young players?

Bennett : You've always got to be mindful of physical and mental freshness. That's a challenge with a young kid, because they need the reps, they need the time. The biggest thing I've seen with the freshmen, they're not used to the workload and the volume, the intensity.

Cougfan: After two years in the national limelight, how do you prepare your team to deal with high expectations when so many players are new or will be thrust into different roles?

Bennett : As long as I'm coach here, I know we'll have to have such an underdog mentality. Like last year, when we had some experience and certainly some talented players. And there are some this year. But we had to embrace that mentality. We have to just fight like crazy to hang in there and hopefully to succeed.

Cougfan: What are realistic goals for the team this season?

Bennett : Certainly you'd love to scratch your way into postseason. That's always our goal. But I think you can make the mistake of getting too numbers focused. First things first. We're starting from scratch again, just like last year. It's the beauty of sports.

Cougfan: What are some of the team's specific needs in order to find success?

Bennett : Nothing changes with us -- it always starts with our team defense. That has to be the backbone of this program. It can't ever be a liability or a weakness. That has to be our strength. Then soundness -- being a team that doesn't beat itself. We talk about it a lot. Let's eliminate the things that will make us lose. Always be good at transition. Very good transition defense. Sound with the ball. From a simplistic standpoint, get as many good shots as we can as an offensive unit and make the opponent shoot as many tough, contested shots (as possible).

Cougfan: Everyone seems to agree that the Pac-10 will be down a bit after losing so many outstanding players, but what do you think of your pre-conference schedule?

Bennett : Going into six years here (counting three years as the top assistant under his father, Dick Bennett), it's the toughest nonconference schedule we've had by far. It was by design. It's a little daunting, but I think it'll get our young kids and our old kids alike a feel for what we need to really improve on and maybe where we have some strengths.

Cougfan: Does this remind you of the start of the 2004-05 season, when Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill and Daven Harmeling were freshmen?

Bennett : The fact we have so many young guys, there will certainly be growing pains. You'll have to kind of remind yourself, "Hey, you're in this for the long run," and go back and think about Weaver, Low, Cowgill, Harmeling as freshmen. That might make me step back and pause for a bit before I react. We certainly, in those years; we were having a hard time. We questioned, "Can we do this here? Is our plan good enough? Are these guys good enough?" That's why it was so valuable to have an experienced coach at the time like my father. It was hard, but he stuck to it. He said, "All right, this is the conditions, we're not going to vary from it. We're not going to waver. We're just going to stay true to what we think has to happen in the long run?"

Cougfan: What do you expect out of your returning starters, point guard Taylor Rochestie and center Aron Baynes?

Bennett : They'll do whatever it takes to win. Whatever that role is, whether it's being aggressive or being more of a "back seat." They had moments last year where they were terrific and carried us. I think they'll be called upon this year to have a lot of responsibility, and I think they're looking forward to it. We need them.

Cougfan: Who can replace Cowgill as the "glue guy" on the Cougars?

Bennett : Caleb (Forrest) and Daven, they have to take that role. Caleb came on well at the end of the year. As I always say, he's not poetry in motion, but he's productive. One of the hardest-working team guys we've had. You don't hear a peep from him whether he's playing 20, 30 minutes or not at all. He just wants what's best for the team. He has bought into the team-first mentality. He's what we call a true servant to our team. He'll do whatever it takes to make his teammates better. I'm hopeful that he'll really get the chance and have a nice year. Daven is very much the same. He'll do whatever it takes. He'll play the 4 spot, maybe we might need him to slide to the 3 at times. Just bring that experience, that toughness he's gained through all his playing experience.

Cougfan: Who will back up Rochestie at the point?

Bennett : We have a few guys, of those freshmen, who can play it. Mike Harthun played it in high school for his four years. Marcus Capers has played a little bit of it in his high school. He's kind of like a Weaver type (athletic and able to slash to the basket), as is Klay Thompson. In a pinch, they can play it. Are they natural 1's? No, but they have some versatility. Mike's kind of a combo guard. Then we have a walk-on, John Allen, who's probably a true point guard. There will be some healthy competition for that spot ... but we need to keep him (Rochestie) healthy.

Cougfan: Few freshmen have come to WSU with nearly as much fanfare as Thompson, the son of former NBA star Mychal Thompson. We know you hate to build up freshmen, but he certainly appears to have the potential to become a big-time scorer. What do you think of the kid?

Bennett : He has a very nice upside. He looks to be a very complete player that certainly has some areas that he needs to tighten up in his game. He seems very serious and hungry to improve, and I like that. That's so important ... I'm excited to see what he'll become in the long run. He has to get some strength and improve, but he's got a great start on it. He's got great genes, no question.

Cougfan: Thompson is just one part of the most highly touted recruiting class in WSU history, which includes Washington Class 4A Player of the Year DeAngelo Casto from Spokane. How does your freshman class look overall?

Bennett : I think a number of freshmen have a nice upside. It's kind of what they'll do with their God-given abilities. When I look at all the hype the scouting services have given, that's all good and well, but it really comes to keep improving and developing as Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low and Cowgill did.

NOTABLE NOTE:
The Cougars open the new campaign with an exhibition at Friel Court on Nov. 10 against Lewis-Clark State. The real season begins Nov. 15, also at Friel, against Mississippi Valley State. WSU will open the Pac-10 season on Jan. 3, at home, against Washington.

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