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Saturday, March 10, 2007 - Page updated at 02:03 AM

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Steve Kelley

These Cougars are cool, so Bennett should stay

Seattle Times staff columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Before they took this improbable ride to a probable fourth seed, back in October when Digger Phelps couldn't have named one of Washington State's starting five, when the Cougars were picked to finish last in the conference, basketball in Pullman was an un-acquired taste.

Liver for sports lovers.

The Cougars were basketball bottom feeders, playing in not-so-splendid isolation, as far as you can get from the game's warm winter buzz.

But something happened this winter in the Palouse. The Cougars finally got it. The lessons about discipline, defense and humility that former coach Dick Bennett taught in his years with the program began to take root.

Then his successor, son Tony, added a little more dash to the offense and a little more glamour to the sideline and suddenly basketball at WSU got noticed.

The team started to win. The campus got involved. The gym got filled. And people, even those Game Night guys in Bristol, Conn., began to take notice.

Late Friday night, inside the Staples Center, Washington State -- not Washington, not UCLA, not Stanford -- played in the Pac-10 Conference semifinals.

Next week they will play in their first NCAA tournament since 1994. And they have a legitimate chance to make the Sweet 16.

Washington State's style isn't "Showtime." It's more like smart food for hungry hoop mavens. It is old school modified for the modern game.

And the success Tony Bennett has had with it this season, as it always does in basketball backwaters, breeds speculation about his staying power at WSU.

How quickly will he move back to his Midwest roots? Bennett played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay and cut his coaching teeth with his dad at Wisconsin.

Will he take the vacant Minnesota job? Will he be a contender at Kentucky if Tubby Smith is fired? Will he leave for some place greener? A place that will pay him more than the $350,000 he is earning this season?

Bennett has had a remarkable first year in college coaching. He won 25 games. He beat Gonzaga at home and USC on the road in December. He finished second in the loaded Pac-10.

Friday's 70-61 loss to USC merely was an anomaly.

In the first half of the conference tournament's semifinal against USC, the Cougars looked uncharacteristically sluggish. Their emotional win over Washington less than 24 hours earlier left them looking heavy-legged.

They allowed more open jumpers in the first 10 minutes against USC then they did in 40 minutes against the Huskies.

Lodrick Stewart, Gabe Pruitt and Nick Young combined for eight three-pointers in the game's first 13 minutes, all of them as uncontested as pre-game warmups.

It was one difficult night in a dream season, but ultimately it will have no effect on where the Cougars are seeded on Selection Sunday. And because of the way they play defense and their offensive patience, they won't be a fun matchup in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

And this could be the first of many March trips for the Cougs.

My guess is Bennett will remain at Washington State. After a season like this, he would be silly to leave. The Cougars, who lose only forward Ivory Clark, will be even smarter, even surer of themselves, even more defensively determined and offensively patient.

This may sound naïve, but what coach wouldn't want another season coaching guards as educable as Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver and Taylor Rochestie?

What coach wouldn't be curious about the learning curve of his big men, Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes and Daven Harmeling?

And wouldn't Bennett be just a little interested in his 6-foot-7 recruit Abe Lodwick, a sharp-shooting sleeper from Bend, Ore., who chose WSU over Oregon?

Bennett doesn't impress me as one of those coaches always looking for the next better job, like say, former Cougars football coach, Dennis Erickson.

And the problems deposed coach Dan Monson had winning at Minnesota, after leaving Gonzaga, should be a cautionary tale for Bennett.

Leaving after only one season as the head coach at WSU would feel too much like bailing.

Bennett's only 37. He can build his resumé in Pullman and take his pick of Big-10 jobs, maybe even Wisconsin, later.

In a basketball backwater, the Bennetts -- father and son -- have built a program to be envied. They have found players who fit their style and believe in their ethos.

In a lot of ways, Tony Bennett is like Washington's Lorenzo Romar. He's smart, ethical and understated.

It wouldn't be right to leave a rivalry like theirs just when it's getting started.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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