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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

WSU's Tony Bennett could have tough choice ahead

Last month, a couple was enjoying dinner at the counter in the best restaurant in town here. Two men came in and were seated immediately...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

PULLMAN — Last month, a couple was enjoying dinner at the counter in the best restaurant in town here. Two men came in and were seated immediately to their left, the parties oblivious to each other.

A few minutes later, Tony Bennett, the Washington State men's basketball coach, realized he and his wife, Laurel, were breaking bread next to a couple of sportswriters who cover his team.

Pullman.

That vignette, plus a good many bigger issues, figure to guide Bennett when the day comes in March that the Cougars fall off the magic carpet and end their second basketball season under the Coach Who Can Do No Wrong.

Following the blueprint established by his father, Dick, Bennett has the Cougars pointed toward their second consecutive NCAA tournament, which would be a first in school history. He appears likely to surpass the best two-year win total (49) at WSU.

All he does is coach, recruit, do it cleanly and make a wistful female fan population wonder what Laurel's got that it doesn't.

Already, his name has been advanced on national Web sites as a likely candidate for the Indiana job vacated by Kelvin Sampson. Asked about it the other day, Bennett, 37, reacted like somebody had told him the NCAA rules committee had outlawed man-to-man defense. He said flatly he wouldn't talk about it.

You'd assume Bennett would listen. Indiana drips with history, from its five national titles to its candy-stripe warmup pants. There's a reason they made a movie called "Hoosiers."

Just as there's history at Indiana, there's history with the Bennett family there. Kathi Bennett, Tony's older sister and the member of the family Dick Bennett has said might be the best at it, was head coach of the Hoosiers' women from 2000 to 2005 before resigning and getting out of the business.

Indiana would offer Tony Bennett a bunch more money than the Cougars can; they're paying him $800,000 annually. Bloomington, at 70,000 population, would present a college town but not one as remote as Pullman. No more would he have to contend with the nettlesome travel issues in and out of WSU.

He can win a national title at Indiana. Realistically, he can't at Washington State.

Even the possibility Indiana gets whacked for Sampson's NCAA violations might be less of a warning flag than it is a pressure-release valve.

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"And this is the year for Bennett to move," wrote Pat Forde of ESPN.com. "His top two scorers are seniors and he has five seniors on the roster."

I'd contend that's a dynamic that would lead Bennett not to make a move.

One thing we know about these Bennetts: There's a lot of substance there. Dick had 19 years combined at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay before he got the coveted job at the big state school in Wisconsin in 1995.

When the Bennetts arrived at WSU in 2003, they laid a painstaking foundation with defense, twice enduring games in which the Cougars scored 29 points. They took no shortcuts.

The sense is that when Tony Bennett leaves, he'd like to do so having helped put something lasting in place, but there's no obvious successor on his staff. In two or three years, there might be.

That leaves ... whom? If Bennett departs, and WSU goes outside for his replacement, the core philosophy probably unravels. And if a couple of the five incoming recruits — in what's considered the Bennetts' best class here — bail out on their letters of intent, it's as if he never signed them in the first place.

All this happened so fast. No way Bennett figured he'd be the consensus national coach of the year in his first year on the job. There's been so little time even to discover what he really likes and doesn't like about it.

He likes living outside the fishbowl (though he wouldn't mind another restaurant menu or two). He doesn't like the media demands — such as they are — going from the TV highlights show to the Pac-10 conference call to the hookup with the local media to the call-in radio show.

He likes the absence of real pressure at WSU, a place where, given the vast capital Bennett has already accumulated, he could throw three consecutive 12-win seasons out there and still have a job.

He has been very good for the school, and the school has been good to him. Remember, in the latter stages of Dick Bennett's third year, when the Cougars won four Pac-10 games and scored in the 30s in three of their final nine, there were a lot of folks wondering whether more of the Bennetts was such a good idea.

It was, in spades.

Now, if it comes to it, no doubt Tony would keep the close counsel of his father on what to do. He'll make sure no sportswriters are within earshot.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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