Cougar fans still heartbroken over Bennett departure

Beau Baily | Evergreen columnist

On March 30, 2009, a group of spectators watched in shock as Tony Bennett walked down the Pullman airport runway for the last time as Washington State’s basketball Head Coach. A fan base mourned the downfall of their beloved men’s basketball program.

And five years later, the Cougar Nation has not been able to let go of the fact that Bennett packed his bags and was out the door overnight. Back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, back–to-back 26-win seasons, and three consecutive postseason births – the best era WSU basketball had seen, and it was over just like that.

Cougar basketball forums and articles about the team are littered throughout the last five years with topics full of speculation, what-ifs, and feelings of betrayal all in regards to Tony Bennett. Some argue that the team would be better off with him still around. Others cite his average performance at Virginia as a reason why his success at WSU would have diminished.

And because of a fan base unable to let go, Ken Bone never really had a chance for success at Washington State. He came in with a different style, a different mindset and a different demeanor that fans were unable to run with given the team’s mediocrity in his first year compared to the success Bennett achieved.

Bennett’s teams had an identity. His defenses were elite and his offense was efficient. His players were likeable on the court as well as off. Because of Bennett’s roaring popularity, a lot of Ken Bone’s strengths have been overlooked.

The identities of Bone’s teams have changed from year to year. Many cite this as a bad thing, but he has been able to get a lot out of his less talented teams.

Like last season. The team finished 13-19, but lost nine games by six or fewer points. The games were boring and not a lot was happening offensively, but the team had a chance to win in 22 out of 32 contests.

Bone’s downfalls have come not on the coaching end, but the recruiting end, where disciplinary issues held recruits that WSU desperately needed from ever stepping foot on Friel Court.

But would these past five years have gone differently with Bennett as coach? Was Bennett truly a perfect fit, or was he set up for success by father Dick Bennet, an architect of WSU’s NCAA tournament teams?

Dick rebuilt the apathetic program from the ground up. He was the head man when players like Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low signed. He crafted the teams that Tony had so much success with.

After Dick left and his players graduated, Tony’s record has been slightly better than mediocre, including his time at Virginia. And while Tony left Bone a few stars, he also left him a bevy of un-athletic guards who could not score at the Pac-12 level.

Many of the problems that plagued Ken Bone’s record at Washington State also hurt Tony Bennett’s teams. It’s just that Bennett’s teams were a little more talented and overcame those problems.

Defending the three has been an issue for decades. Bone’s teams haven’t won in the Pac-12 tournament. Bennett has never made it past the second round despite playing lower seeds. Bone’s teams seem to shut down in the last five minutes, going stagnant on offense and playing just to not lose. Bennett’s offenses were like that the whole game. The difference is Bennett had experienced players capable of making important shots, while Bone’s teams always seem to struggle with inexperience.

Would Klay Thompson have broken out in Bennett’s low tempo offense? Would Xavier Thames be the player of the year candidate he is now at San Diego State? Or would Brock Motum have been given the green light from beyond the arc?

Speculation aside, the Cougar fan base is giving the Seattle Mariners a run for their money in the apathy department, and support for the program is at its lowest since the 90s.

The problem with WSU basketball is not Ken Bone’s coaching, but the result of too much mediocre talent that even Tony Bennett would have struggled with.