by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast week, the Washington State men's basketball team beat Gonzaga before a packed house at Friel Court. Wow. When's the last time those words were strung together?

After 10 consecutive losing seasons -- including such ghastly records as 6-21, 6-22 and 7-20 -- the Cougars are one of the hottest teams in the country. The 9-1 start is WSU's best since 1993-94, when another 9-1 start helped vault the Cougars into the NCAA tournament for just the fourth time in school history.

The Cougars haven't been back to the Big Dance since, and they're a long shot to make it this year. Last Tuesday's convincing 77-67 win over 18th-ranked Gonzaga notwithstanding, the Cougars have played a fairly lightweight nonconference schedule, and WSU came in ninth in the preseason media poll for the Pacific-10 Conference.

That said, the Cougars will gladly accept all the kudos they can after all their struggles over the past decade. WSU appears to be playing looser and with more confidence under first-year coach Tony Bennett. After the oft-volatile Dick Bennett lost 14 of his final 16 games last season and scurried back into retirement, his son Tony replaced him.

"Too much of anything isn't good," says senior forward Ivory Clark, referring to the elder Bennett's frequent temper outbursts and acid-tongued critiques. "Down the stretch, it kind of lessened its effectiveness. I think that was a key factor in our losing at the end."

"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."

Mind you, Tony Bennett knows there's a time and place to let his players know their place. When the Cougars sleepwalked to a narrow win over Boise State on Nov. 25 at the Spokane Arena, Bennett came down on hard on the team at the next two practices.

"You can see why he's 'Dick Jr.'" Clark says. "He wasn't pleased at all with our effort. He brought out the whippin' stick!"

There was a reason behind the madness, of course. To change WSU's basketball fortunes, drastic measures are sometimes necessary. "We're realistic about where this program is at," Bennett says. "We have to take baby steps."

Bennett brought instant credibility to the job, although his head coaching experience was limited to three seasons in a low-key pro league in New Zealand. Tony played in the NBA after starring for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Tony aided Dick during Wisconsin's Final Four run in 2000. Tony remains the all-time NCAA Division I leader in 3-point shooting percentage (49.7).

"Coach Tony is younger," Low says. "He brings a lively influence into the locker room."

"I love playing for him," Clark says. "Coach Tony is in there with us -- he works out with us sometimes."

Bennett, 37, is quick to credit his father for setting him up to succeed. The Cougars improved from 7-20 to 13-16 in the Bennetts' first season at WSU, though they slipped to 12-16 and then 11-17 the past two seasons. Tony was his father's No. 1 assistant.

"If I can be half the coach of him, I'll be very happy, because he's as good as it gets," Tony says.

Clark and Low agree with Bennett that another year of experience has contributed to WSU's jump from 58 points per game and 43 percent shooting from the field last year to 69 points and 48 percent this year. Defense remains a Bennett staple, however, and the Cougars are giving up just one more point per game (59) than last season.

"Dick was more defensive-oriented ... Tony just revved up the offense a little bit," Clark says.

"We feel more comfortable playing for Coach Tony," Low says.

Just as long the Cougars don't get too comfortable, that's fine with the new coach. On the other hand, Bennett doesn't want his players ever to feel as uncomfortable as he did the first time he coached a game at WSU with his father -- after the two routinely worked before sold-out throngs of 17,000 at Wisconsin -- and saw a "crowd" that literally numbered in the dozens. "It was like someone hit me in the face with cold water," Bennett recalls.

Barely three years later, almost 11,000 turned out on a frosty night in Pullman to watch the Cougars pour cold water on Gonzaga.

The Cougars play Cal State Northridge at Friel Court on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 2 pm. Call (800) GO-COUGS.

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