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Monday, March 26, 2007 - Page updated at 10:42 AM

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Cougars basketball facing myriad matters

Seattle Times staff reporter

As robust as was Washington State's 2006-07 basketball season, so, seemingly, is the potential impact of it. No wonder WSU athletic director Jim Sterk is trying to retain first-year coach Tony Bennett.

In their most consistent year in history, the Cougars marched to a 26-8 record, tying the school record for victories. For the first time since 1980, they never lost two games in a row. Now they'd like to see the same kind of steady uptick in basketball-related aspects.

• Ticket sales: From an average of 3,797 in attendance in 2005-06, the Cougars leaped to 7,177 this year, 8,869 in Pac-10 games.

Pete Isakson, WSU associate athletic director, says the school had about 2,800 season tickets this season. Because of the success, about 200 prospective new buyers are in line for 2007-08, and at the normal rate of about 3.5 tickets per buyer, that would bump the total to about 3,500.

"People started having faith in coming out and experiencing Cougar basketball," said Isakson. "To me, that's probably the biggest thing that happened."

The bad news: Ticket prices are likely to rise, says Isakson, "but not significantly. The cost of doing business never goes down. If it's a buck or two here or there, most people understand that."

WSU in Review


• Tied for most wins (26) in school history.

• School record for blocked shots (155).

• First three-game sweep over Washington since 1944-45.

• Ranked for 10 weeks, two more than the program's composite history in polls.

• Tony Bennett named national coach of the year by Basketball Times and The Sporting News.

• Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver named All-Pac-10 and NABC District 14 first-team.

• Robbie Cowgill, Aron Baynes and Daven Harmeling selected to Pac-10 all-academic team.

• Donor contributions: There's no way to assess or forecast donations, but it's reasonable to assume a bump of some sort. In fact, premium season tickets carry a required contribution.

"Annual giving, those dollars would increase," says John Johnson, WSU senior associate director, "and second, the overall feeling about the program is enhanced. It gives us a talking point.

"Sometimes those people that maybe aren't athletic donors or ticket-holders, even though they may not be a sports fan, per se, they see the real benefit, particularly with special projects. On that front, there would be some bumps."

• The emotional factor: Right or wrong, athletics is the front porch to the university, and before the basketball renaissance, WSU's veranda had collected some mildew. The momentum from three straight 10-win football seasons had evaporated and athletically, there wasn't much to latch onto.

Such emotional factors are impossible to quantify, but schools like Gonzaga, especially if they have sustained success, regularly cite a program's rise as a reason for increased general awareness of the school, helping it in ways beyond athletics.

"What a great uplift it was for our fans," said outgoing president Lane Rawlins. "It's been a long time since we had this kind of experience.

"Every time anybody talks to me, they tell how great it is to win, and then they follow right up with how important it is to see these kids, who are real students playing basketball ... we're just proud, win or lose. We'd love to win, but we're proud of the program."

• Recruiting. Since the program began to peter out following Kelvin Sampson's departure in 1994, WSU could legitimately only tell recruits: You can play in the Pac-10 here. Now it can say with some credibility: You can win here.

Don Van Lierop, coach at state Class 4A champion Ferris of Spokane, says the season has revived WSU's recruiting stock for players like his 6-foot-8 junior center, DeAngelo Casto.

"GU [Gonzaga] and Washington State are both at the top of his list," said Van Lierop. "In the old days, it'd be GU and probably WSU barely on the radar."

Van Lierop says Bennett attended a handful of Ferris games this season. At one, an oblivious Van Lierop noticed a standing ovation taking place at an innocent moment during the game. He looked over to see Bennett entering the gym.

Little wonder, then, that keeping Bennett is a priority. Sterk is said to want to meet with Bennett before the Final Four, but it's believed that hasn't taken place yet.

Bennett could return to a team that will have every piece back except senior forward Ivory Clark, whose departure is no small thing; he led the Cougars in blocked shots and was a valuable defensive matchup against many teams. Clark was the key in the NCAA win over Oral Roberts.

The recruiting push can yield only limited immediate results because of available scholarships. WSU has signed Abe Lodwick, a 6-6 shooter from Bend, Ore., and also will add 6-10 German center Fabian Boeke in the fall. Boeke's arrival means one of the current scholarship players will be gone.

"I was glad we got to the NCAA tournament this year, as much for this year as potentially next year, to taste this and experience this," Bennett said the other day.

"You never know when you're coming down this road again; sometimes it happens only every so often. I think it was [1994] at Washington State. But that's not the plan at Washington State anymore."

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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