by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & THE SON ALSO RISES & lt;BR & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ick Bennett loves his son like, well, a son. In fact, Bennett loves his son so much, he begged him not to come to Washington State.
"I told him he should stay at Wisconsin," the elder Bennett recalls. "We knew they had a good thing going there."
Kids being kids, Tony Bennett insisted on joining his father in Pullman, where Dick had come out of retirement to work his rebuilding magic.
A funny thing happened on the way to a fuzzy-warm ending to Dick's impressive coaching career. The Cougars made some progress and began drawing decent crowds during Bennett's three years in Pullman, but when Bennett retired again after last season, WSU's string of losing seasons had reached a whopping 10.
And then the Cougars' top scorer transferred.
And then the Cougars were picked to finish last in the Pac-10 preseason media poll.
And then the Cougars opened the season with the same core group of players from the last-place team of the previous year... and a first-time college head coach by the name of Tony Bennett.
"One person told me, 'It's the hardest major college job in the country,'" Tony says. "I said, 'Well, thank you for the kind words.'"
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hese days, kind words are the only ones being tossed Bennett's way. At 37, Bennett has engineered one of the most stunning turnarounds in Pac-10 history as the Cougars make their first NCAA tournament appearance in 13 years.
"What they've accomplished is amazing," says UCLA coach Ben Howland.
"Nobody in the country is doing a better job than Tony and his staff," adds USC coach Tim Floyd.
Dick Bennett won 490 games in nearly 30 years as a college head coach, but his son was named national coach of the year by Basketball Times after just 30 games as a college head coach.
"Where do I go from here?" Tony asks. "I am humbled, I really am. There are so many coaches, in my opinion, who are more deserving and better coaches."
WSU players like junior point guard Kyle Weaver aren't so sure.
"He definitely deserves it," Weaver says. "He's done a great job with us this season. He's taken pretty much the same team as the year before, with pretty much the same schemes, and he's added his own twists to it."
Bennett credits his father for "building the foundation" of this year's team. However, Tony was the primary recruiter of most of the Cougars.
"Dick laid the foundation, but I think it was also Tony's work behind the scenes that helped set the foundation," says WSU athletic director Jim Sterk, who expects other schools to pursue Bennett at season's end.
It remains to be seen if Bennett will stick around long enough to build on that foundation. Bennett quickly halted new contract talks initiated by Sterk during the season -- "I just want to focus on the season," Bennett said at the time -- and he has steadfastly refused to commit to staying at WSU.
Bennett's base salary of $350,000 is the lowest in the Pac-10. Dick Bennett says other schools have put out feelers on Tony, but Tony and Sterk say no one has contacted them.
"We'll try to make it hard on him [to leave]," Sterk says.
Dick and his wife Anne elected to stay in Pullman this season to observe their son's work first-hand, but they'll soon move back to Wisconsin. Tony still consults with his father on basketball matters almost daily, but the final decisions are all Tony's.
"I have an overwhelming sense of joy and pride," Dick says.
This was Dick's plan all along: Grooming Tony to replace him, then stepping aside once the growing pains were ready to subside.
Or, as Tony puts it, "He took a bullet for this program."
"I think they could be good for years to come," Dick says. "They've got good kids coming in."
Everyone agrees that another year of experience has been invaluable for the Cougars, a close-knit group that lacks a superstar but plays exceedingly well together.
"You could look at our whole roster and say we gambled on just about everyone," Tony Bennett says.
Tony, a former NBA player and a sweet-shooting guard for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, has spiked up the conservative offense run by Dick at WSU. Still, it is defense -- the hallmark of any Dick Bennett team -- that remains WSU's calling card.
"Every time you play them, it's like a root canal," Howland mutters.
Many Cougar players had similar feelings about playing for Dick Bennett by the end of last season. Tony flashes his temper on occasion -- he chased an official off the court at the end of one game and got into a midcourt shouting match with USC's Floyd before police arrived at the scene -- but he's far less caustic and confrontational than his father.
"Too much of anything isn't good," says senior forward Ivory Clark, who says the elder Bennett's negativity made for "probably my worst college experience" last season.
"I think Coach [Dick] Bennett is a great coach, a master at what he does," junior guard Derrick Low says. "But I think some players didn't respond well when he was constantly pushing you to your limit."
Dick Bennett makes no apologies ("I always yelled at my best players the most,") but he understands why his son's gentler ways are appreciated.
"I was much harder on the players verbally," Dick says. "Believe it or not, that was by design. When you take over a program, you don't start by making things easier. You have to establish discipline and toughness. Tony has maintained the toughness, but he's given the players more freedom."
Dick Bennett only wishes he could free himself of the basketball demons that haunt him even in retirement. Just like when he coached, Bennett gets so wound up watching his son's team play, he literally becomes ill.
"I had more fun watching him play," Bennett says, "but I feel perhaps prouder of him as he coaches, because I know how difficult it is as a coach."
"If I can be half the coach [my dad is]," Tony says, "I'll be very happy, because he's as good as it gets."
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY vs. Oral Roberts University
11:40 am, Thursday, March 15, on KREM 2 and KXLY 920, Arco Arena, sacramento, calif.
Top 25 polls: 13th Associated Press (media); tied for 13th USA Today/ESPN (coaches)
NCAA tournament seeding: 3rd in East
Odds on winning NCAA tournament: 50-1 (USA Today)
All-time NCAA tournament record: 3-4 (four trips, 1994 most recent)
Coach: Tony Bennett, first year (25-7)
Plus: Veteran team plays well together
Minus: Lacks big-time scorer, weak in rebounding
Etc.: Rank with nation's best with just 10.5 turnovers and 59.1 points allowed per game... First winning season since 1995-96... One shy of school record for wins (1940-41 NCAA losing finalists)... No. 9 AP ranking earlier this season highest in school history... Most improved record since last season (11-17) of any NCAA tournament team... Junior Derrick Low, a 6-2 shooting guard, averages 13.6 points and nails 40 percent of his 3-pointers... Junior Kyle Weaver, a 6-6 point guard, averages 11.5 points and leads the Cougars with 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.2 steals.
Famous alum: Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow
Quote: Andy Katz, ESPN: "I think they'll be a Sweet 16 team."
Odds on winning NCAA tournament: 1 million to 1 (USA Today)
All-time NCAA tournament record: 2-3 (three trips, 2006 most recent)
Coach: Scott Sutton, 8th year (144-101)
Plus: Can pound it inside or bomb away from outside
Minus: Weak league, lack of depth
Etc.: School founded in 1963 by evangelist Oral Roberts... Beat No. 1 West seed Kansas... Little-used walk-on Ben Haynes graduated from Pullman High School and has played pick-up ball with WSU players... Power forward Caleb Green, a two-time honorable mention All-American, leads active NCAA Division I players with 2,490 career points... The 6-8, 255-pound Green leads the Mid-Continent with 20.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and a whopping 10.8 free-throw attempts per game... Shooting guard Ken Tutt, a 6-1 shooting guard, averages 16.1 points and shoots 41 percent from 3-point range... Green and Tutt are the seventh teammates in Division I history to each post 2,000 career points... Like WSU, Oral Roberts has just two players scoring in double figures, and the third- and fourth-leading scorers on both teams come off the bench... Sutton is the son of college basketball coaching legend Eddie Sutton.
Famous alum: Actress-singer-general irritant Kathy Lee Gifford
Quote: Sutton on Green: "Without question, there'll be a spot in the NBA for Caleb Green."
And the winner plays: No. 6 seed Vanderbilt (SEC, 20-11) or No. 11 seed George Washington (Atlantic 10, 23-8) on Saturday, time TBA
-- Howie Stalwick
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here once was a time when Gonzaga was this quaint little Catholic school on the banks of the Spokane River. If the school's basketball team managed to post a winning record while scheduling Whitman, Carroll and other hoops lightweights, the 2,000 or so diehards who found their way to games at Gonzaga's tiny gym went home (or to Jack and Dan's) happy.
Somewhere along the way, things changed. Gonzaga basketball went big-time, as did the expectations of fans who jammed their way into Gonzaga's glitzy new arena or watched the Bulldogs make more television appearances than Dr. Phil.
Alas, bigger is not necessarily better. The school that once had a recruiting budget good for a few tanks of gas and a couple nights in a Motel 6 now searches for players all across the country and beyond. Inevitably, the overachieving Northwest youngster who dreams of playing for the Zags can be bypassed for a more talented but perhaps less enthralled recruit.
And then there's David Pendergraft, who represents all things good about the past and present of Gonzaga basketball. He's just a small-town kid from nearby Brewster, Wash., with a shock of red hair, a deep and abiding love for all things Gonzaga and a 24/7 smile when not banging bodies with players half a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier.
"He's everything a Zag is all about," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
"He epitomizes what a Zag is," Bulldog guard Derek Raivio adds.
Pendergraft has drawn more attention from fans and media in recent weeks by bumping up his numbers since Josh Heytvelt took the highway off the roster. Rest assured, however, that Pendergraft was greatly appreciated by Gonzaga insiders long before his stat sheet gained some gloss.
"The heart, the effort that just comes with every minute he's on the floor -- he's been a big part of this run down the stretch," Few says.
Pendergraft, a 6-foot-6, 223-pound junior, is averaging 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in eight games since the gifted Heytvelt (15.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg) went wayward. Pendergraft averaged 4.4 points and 4.2 rebounds before Heytvelt's suspension.
"He's always had a game like that," Raivio says. "It's not surprising to me."
"As a leader and teammate of these guys, that's what I need to be doing," Pendergraft says.
Few continues to bring Pendergraft off the bench to take advantage of the caffeine-like energy boost he provides. Pendergraft could use a few extra minutes of rest to prepare himself for his nightly battles with bigger, thicker, stronger post players whom he must defend even more often now that the 6-11, 238-pound Heytvelt is absent.
"I don't mind it at all," Pendergraft says with his usual mix of enthusiasm and optimism. "I can use my quickness as a smaller guy getting around the post instead of trying to use brute strength."
Pendergraft's ability to adjust mentally and physically to whatever best serves the team is a trait that has made him a valued reserve since his freshman year. This was a young man destined and determined to be a Zag -- he made a non-binding verbal commitment to accept a scholarship at Gonzaga as a high school sophomore, the earliest commitment in team history -- and he's been a great fit with the Bulldogs on and off the court ever since he arrived on campus.
"David's just a happy-go-lucky guy," Raivio says. "He's just a great person."
Not to mention a pretty fair player, as Pendergraft demonstrated last week while pouring in a career-high 22 points against San Diego in the semifinals of the West Conference Conference Tournament. One night later, Pendergraft was named to the all-tournament team after scoring 12 points in Gonzaga's title game win over Santa Clara.
"He's on a roll right now," Raivio says. "We look for it to keep going."
"We've kind of taken on an underdog role since [the Heytvelt incident] about a month ago," Pendergraft says. "I think it helped in jelling on the team. Guys have stepped up, knowing they had to do more."
Doing more, scoring more, rebounding more -- Pendergraft is accomplishing all that, but he's not working more. With Pendergraft, the Bulldogs were already getting the maximum amount of sweat permitted by law.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t a glance: Barring a major upset, this game might be filed under "be careful what you wish for" by the Bulldogs. Omni-enthusiastic Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves is thrilled to take the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time, but the 17th-ranked Blue Raiders are precisely the type of team that usually demolishes West Coast Conference teams like Gonzaga. Translation: Middle Tennessee runs, guns, presses and basically just makes life miserable for less athletic teams. The 29-3 Blue Raiders are led by 5-foot-11 senior guard Chrissy Givens, a potential first-round draft pick in the WNBA. Givens ranks fourth nationally with 22.8 points per game. Amber Holt, a 6-foot junior forward, adds 16.8 ppg. The Blue Raiders average 13.8 steals (second in Division I) and 79.6 points (fourth), and their 26-game winning streak is the longest in Division I. The 24-9 Bulldogs have won nine straight and are led by the front-court tandem of 6-3 senior Stephanie Hawk (14.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and 6-1 freshman Heather Bowman (13.2 ppg). Middle Tennessee is seeded fifth and Gonzaga 12th in the Dayton Region.
Quote: Hawk on facing Middle Tennessee: "I'm really excited. I think it'll be a good challenge for us, but we're playing pretty well defensively and executing well offensively."
Odds on winning NCAA tournament: 750 to 1 (USA Today)
Coach: Mark Few, 8th year (211-51)
Plus: The Bulldogs, who often seem most comfortable in an underdog role, have rallied the troops after star center-forward Josh Heytvelt was suspended for the season due to his arrest on drug charges
Minus: Lack inside muscle and perimeter quickness, play in weak league
Etc.: The Bulldogs rank in the top 20 nationally in points per game (15th, 79.1), free-throw percentage (17th, 75.1), field-goal shooting percentage (48.7, 18th) and field-goal percentage shooting defense (19th, 39.9)... Despite playing in a conference that was even weaker than usual this year (which helps explain the latter statistic), Gonzaga ranks 205th in ppg against (70.1) and 208th in steals per game (6.2)... Shooting guard Derek Raivio averages 18.2 ppg, sinks 41 percent of his 3-pointers and leads NCAA Division I with 96.1 percent shooting at the free-throw line... Raivio is the all-time Division I leader in free-throw shooting (minimum 300 total attempts and 2.5 attempts per game) at 92.7 percent... Point guard Jeremy Pargo (12.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.4 rpg, 1.45 spg) provides much-needed athleticism... Guard-forward Micah Downs has shown flashes of brilliance while averaging 16.5 ppg during GU's five-game winning streak.
Famous alum: Retired NBA great John Stockton
Quote: Few on Gonzaga's play after problems on and off the court: "It's incredibly satisfying. It's probably as satisfying an accomplishment as I've ever had as a coach."
Second-round game if they win: No. 2 seed UCLA (26-5) or No. 15 seed Weber State (20-11) on Saturday in Sacramento (time TBA)
Record: 20-10 overall, 10-6 Big Ten Conference (third), 0-1 Big Tournament (first round)
Top 25 polls: Not ranked
NCAA tournament seeding: 7th in East
Odds on winning NCAA tournament: 150 to 1 (USA Today)
All-time NCAA tournament record: 59-28 (33 trips, 2006 most recent)
Coach: Kelvin Sampson, 1st year at Indiana (20-10)
Plus: Typically rugged, gritty Big Ten team
Minus: Lost five of last nine games, lack dominant player
Etc.: Sampson, a former Washington State coach, is good friends with Few... The Hoosiers inquired about Few's interest in their coaching job last year before luring Sampson from Oklahoma... Indiana ranks third with five Division I championships... Gonzaga beat Indiana in the second round of last year's tournament, but most of the key players on both of those teams have departed... The Bulldogs are vulnerable against big men with game, and 6-foot-9, 251-pound D.J. White leads Indiana with 13.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.2 bpg and 51.6 percent shooting from the field... The Hoosiers hit 38 percent from 3-point range... Roderick Wilmont, a 6-4 guard, nails 39 percent of his treys and ranks second on the Hoosiers with 12.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg.
Quote: Sampson on the Bulldogs: "High-octane offensive team. Nobody talks about 'em in terms of being a 'Cinderella' anymore. They just talk about them being a basketball power, which they are."
-- Howie Stalwick
SPOKANE ARENA MATCHUPS
vs. NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES
4:25 pm, Friday
Texas (No. 4 Seed East)
Record: 24-9 overall,
12-4 Big 12 Conference
Top 25 polls: 11th AP,
11th USA Today/ESPN
Coach: Rick Barnes
Player to watch: 6-9 freshman, C-F Kevin Durant (25.6 ppg) & & & &
Inside stuff: Durant, who figures to be the No. 2 NBA draft pick this year behind Ohio State freshman Greg Oden, became the first freshman male basketball player to win national player of the year honors when he was honored by The Sporting News magazine this week. Durant is a spectacularly gifted athlete who scores at will from 3-point range or inside the paint. The Longhorns start four freshmen and a sophomore and average 82 ppg, but they give up 72 ppg, and defense usually prevails in the tournament.
First-round keys: New Mexico State likes to press, but if the Aggies can't fluster the youngsters from Texas, it could be a Long(horns) night for the Aggies.
NEW MEXICO STATE
(NO. 13 SEED EAST)
Record: 25-8 overall,
11-5 Western Athletic Conference (second), WAC Tourney champion
Coach: Reggie Theus
Player to watch: 6-7 junior, F-G Justin Hawkins (15.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
Inside stuff: The Aggies are athletic and fun to watch, but they're scoring only four more points per game than they're giving up (78-74). Theus, a former NBA star, has revived a proud basketball program that suffered through a 6-24 season two years ago before he arrived on the scene. Former Pullman High School star Fred Peete, a Kansas State transfer, starts at guard and averages 9.7 ppg.
First-round keys: The Aggies hope to wear down Texas with their depth, balance and up-tempo play. Six Aggies score more than 10 ppg, and three others average more than 8.5.
3/14/07 OREGON DUCKS
vs. MIAMI (OHIO) REDHAWKS
1:55 pm, Friday
(no. 3 seed midwest)
Record: 26-7 overall,
11-7 Pacific-10 Conference (tied for 3rd), Pac-10 Tournament champion
Top 25 polls: 10th AP,
12th USA Today/ESPN
Coach: Ernie Kent
Player to watch: 6-0 senior,
G Aaron Brooks (17.6 ppg) & & & &
Inside stuff: The Ducks were reeling from three straight losses before they knocked off WSU to launch their current six-game winning streak. The Ducks don't play great defense, but they usually don't have to, since all five starters average at least 10.8 ppg and nail at least 40 percent of their 3-pointers. Oregon's strong play of late has quieted the seemingly annual call for Kent's head. Speculation about Kent's job security grew louder when Pat Kilkenny, a friend of Gonzaga coach Mark Few was recently named athletic director.
First-round keys: Don't let Bryce Taylor wake up from his dream -- he scored 32 points and drained all 14 of his shots in the Pac-10 title game, including seven 3-pointers and three free throws.
(No. 13 seed midwest)
Record: 18-14 overall,
10-6 Mid-American Conference (3rd), MAC Tournament champion
Coach: Charlie Coles
Player to watch: 6-6 junior
F Tim Pollitz (15.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Inside stuff: The RedHawks' improbable journey came about on a last-second, banked 3-pointer by Doug Penno in the MAC Tournament title game. The RedHawks are one of the nation's stingiest teams on defense, yielding just 57 ppg.
First-round keys: The RedHawks are no match for Oregon athletically, so they'll try to eat up the clock and grind away inside against the Ducks. The 65-year-old Coles suffered a heart attack during a game a few years ago, but he never felt better than after the last-second win over 26-7 Akron at the MAC Tournament final.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
vs. WINTHROP EAGLES
11:35 am, Friday
(No. 6 Seed midwest)
Record: 24-7 overall,
11-5 Big East Conference (fourth)
Top 25 polls: 17th AP,
17th USA Today/ESPN
Coach: Mike Brey
Player to watch: 6-foot-4 junior, G Russell Carter (17.2 ppg,
41 percent on 3-pointers)
Inside stuff: As soon as the Irish grab a rebound or inbound the ball, look out -- they're launching a 3-pointer. Notre Dame players of all shapes and sizes launch 3-pointers like they're worth 10 points. The Irish have shot more than twice as many 3's as their opponents (23 a game), and they connect 40 percent of the time.
First-round keys: If the Irish aren't hitting from downtown, they look like a prime candidate to be upset by a Winthrop team that insiders respect greatly. Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson, & & & &
a freshman who possesses where-did-he-go quickness, needs to keep playing beyond his years. One major concern for Irish fans: Notre Dame is 18-0 at home, 6-7 away.
(No. 11 Seed midwest)
Record: 28-4 overall,
14-0 Big South Conference
Top 25 polls: 22nd AP, 21st USA Today/ESPN.
Coach: Gregg Marshall
Player to watch: 6-3 junior,
G Michael Jenkins (15.3 ppg,
43 percent on 3-pointers)
Inside stuff: The Eagles are riding an 18-game win streak, but they're 0-6 all-time in the tourney as they prepare for their seventh trip in nine years. The Big South is weak, so the Eagles (based in Rock Hill, S.C.) spruced up their schedule this season. Winthrop's only losses came against North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maryland and Texas A & amp;M, all of which are currently ranked in the top 18 by AP.
First-round keys: Winthrop yields just 61 ppg, but Notre Dame averages 82 ppg. The Eagles must extend their defense to guard Notre Dame's 3-point gunners without giving the Irish too much room under the basket.
vs. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
6:45 pm, Friday
USC (NO. 5 seed EAST)
Record: 23-11 overall, 11-7 Pacific-10 (tied for third)
Top 25 polls: 23rd AP,
25th USA Today/ESPN
Coach: Tim Floyd
Player to watch: 6-6 junior,
G-F Nick Young (17.5 ppg) & & & &
Inside stuff: The Trojans are loaded with gifted athletes, and Floyd -- a former Idaho and NBA coach -- has convinced a group of talented scorers that defense is essential to winning. Young is talking about leaving early for the NBA, where his silky-smooth jumper should fit nicely (46 percent on 3-pointers). Lodrick Stewart, a 6-4 senior guard out of Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, averages 14 ppg and cans 44 percent of his 3's.
First-round keys: If Gabe Pruitt can duplicate his Pac-10 Tournament performance against Washington State (26 points and seven 3-pointers), the Trojans should be able to cover for a lineup that lacks talent inside other than 21-year-old freshman Taj Gibson (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg).
ARKANSAS (No. 12 seed east)
Record: 21-13 overall,
7-9 SEC West (tied for 3rd)
Coach: Stan Heath
Player to watch: 6-1 freshman,
G Patrick Beverley (13.8 ppg, 1.8 spg)
Inside stuff: The Razorbacks have the kind of big bodies that can give USC problems. WSU fans remember how burly Cougar center Aron Baynes dominated USC two weeks ago in Pullman. Of course, Cougar fans also remember how the Trojans beat WSU in the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament last week.
First-round keys: Beverly's athleticism will come in handy against the Trojans, but Arkansas is not a great offensive team, and USC holds opponents to 39 percent shooting from the field. The Razorbacks are 5-1 in the last six games, but they're nothing like the six Final Four teams Arkansas has produced, including the 1994 national champions.