by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & T & lt;/span & ony Bennett amazed the college basketball world by winning 26 games in each of his first two seasons as head men's basketball coach at Washington State.
What is even more amazing, however, is that Bennett accomplished the feat without the benefit of any blue-chip recruits.
Derrick Low, now playing professionally in Australia after being bypassed in the NBA draft, was the only player on last year's Cougars who drew more than passing interest in high school from any of the top college programs.
This year's freshman class is widely heralded as the best in WSU history, but the Cougars were not one of the five Pac-10 teams that cracked Scout.com's national recruiting rankings (UCLA was No. 1 among the 30 schools ranked). The only Cougar who made Scout.com's Top 100 list of high school recruits was Klay Thompson at No. 45.
Thompson, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Ladera Ranch, Calif., has been labeled "by far the best freshman I've seen since I've been here" by fifth-year senior forward Daven Harmeling.
Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, a 6-foot-8 power forward out of Spokane's Ferris High School, are expected to play key roles as freshmen on a team with 10 new faces.
Thompson and Casto handled questions every bit as adroitly as they handle a basketball in a wide-ranging interview with The Inlander:
Inlander: The Cougars reached the Sweet 16 in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but only five lettermen are back, and 10 of you have yet to play a college game. What is a realistic goal for the Cougars this season?
Casto: I know for a fact -- you look at our seniors, they're not going to let us not go to the NCAA Tournament. It's going to be a tough, tough, tough year, and we have to be very gritty and hard-nosed to get there.
Thompson: I think we have enough talent returning and enough leadership to contend for the [Pac-10] title. ... It would be great to get to the postseason, especially the NCAA Tournament.
Inlander: Do you deserve to start in the season opener?
Thompson: I'm not sure. I don't care if I start. Any way I can help the team is fine with me. I think the five who know the offense the best and understand what we're doing defensively should start.
Casto: I would say I don't deserve to start. If we went by who deserves to start, I would put the seniors on the floor and have them teach us as we go along.
Inlander: DeAngelo drew interest from schools like Georgetown, Washington and Gonzaga, and Klay was recruited by Michigan, Notre Dame, California, etc. Why did you pick Washington State?
Casto: It was home, so to speak. ... The other thing is, they really wanted me here. I like the aspect of being the underdog. We can blow this program up and make it huge. I want to be part of a legacy.
Thompson: I just felt the best connection with the coaching staff, and I think they can really elevate my game. Out of all the places I went to, they all felt great, but I felt the most comfortable here with all the players. They really get along well. The team chemistry is great, and I really didn't want to pass up the opportunity to play in the Pac-10, especially with a program on the rise like WSU.
Inlander: Not everyone wants to play for a coach who demands as much defensively as Tony Bennett. What is your opinion about the heavy emphasis on defense at Washington State?
Thompson: I think it's good. Tony knows his personnel really well. We're not going to beat too many teams off individual talent, so to play as a defensive unit will be our best chance to beat the big-time schools. They've shown in the past they can, so I think defense is extremely important. You can always be good on defense. You can be consistent on offense, but you'll have your off days.
Casto: I love it. I'm going to develop as a player offensively. I'm going to be able to figure out a way to score on the best of them. But if you can learn to play defense, you can play. Tony -- I like how that's his emphasis: 'If you can play defense, you can play in my program.' I feel like there's nothing funner than jumping up in the air and going to get a block or going up and getting a rebound.
Inlander: Who is the goofiest guy on the team?
Casto: That's just a difficult question. They all bring such a weird vibe. Caleb Forrest is talking about hunting. You talk to him before practice, and you're thinking, 'He doesn't play basketball. No WAY he plays basketball.' He's talking about shooting deer between the eyes. ... Then you've got Daven Harmeling and his wit. He knows he's intelligent, so he just talks everyone in circles. You're, like, intrigued but confused. And Taylor Rochestie singing and making up words. His favorite thing is to make up words. His new word is "tannanich." His old word was "mollishwood."
Thompson: Charlie Enquist. You'd think he'd be really quiet, but he's just a weird guy. In a good way, though. ... He's different, but it's a good thing. He's fun to be around. He's a nice kid, he's just a goofy kid.
Inlander: What is the biggest difference between high school and college basketball?
Casto: The speed of the game and the strong emphasis on things like defense. In high school, we pretty much outscored people.
Thompson: The competition, because it's the Pac-10 and no one's bad. Everyone is your level if not better. As far as intensity and emphasis on defense and stuff like that, it's essential.
Inlander: What is the best thing about living in Pullman?
Thompson: It's a really good atmosphere. Everyone seems really nice and gets to know everybody because it's a small town. There's a lot of passion for the Cougars.
Casto: The atmosphere and the college and the life. It's all about the students and the athletes and the fans. I feel like the distractions are limited.
Inlander: What is the worst thing about living in Pullman?
Casto: Sometimes you go, 'Man, why can't I go to, like, bumper cars or something?' Do something. See civilization.
Thompson: The weather. But I don't mind it. I'm kind of looking forward to snow -- for about a week. After that, it kinda gets old.