Without a doubt, the hardest part of the 2009-2010 basketball season to stomach was the losing. But there's another loss that struck a chord with a lot of Cougar fans, myself included.
I'm talking, of course, about the loss of Bennett Ball.
When Cougar basketball was mired in the depths of despair during the late nineties and early aughts, they tried a number of things to sort it out. They played normal tempo for a while. They ran and gunned (ganned?). But nothing really worked until Dick Bennett showed up and instilled a system centered around defense and slowing the game down. Cougar fans were at times reluctant to embrace it, but they eventually came around. It instantly made the Cougars competitive, or, failing that, lose by a smaller point spread. When the reigns were passed to Tony and the Cougars made their tournament runs, BennettBallMania had officially arrived.
I arrived on the WSU campus in 2003 predominantly a Zag fan, and left it by far and away a Cougar basketball fan. Bennett Ball deserves a lot of credit for that. Sure, it's ugly. Sometimes really ugly (as in 81-29 ugly). However, it's also disciplined. It values a lost art in modern basketball - the mid-range jumper. Teams rely on defense, passing and cleaning up the defensive boards. The athleticism and the transition game of teams like the early 00s Arizona Wildcats are negated. It's a brilliant plan for a team like the Cougars, who need a system to match the fact they aren't going to routinely recruit the athletes of a UCLA or even a UW. Bennett ball fit us. Set us apart from our rivals. Made a lot of opposing fans hate us simply by lowering scores and causing ugly basketball.
Fast forward to 2009, when Tony Bennett is duped into the lovely school-to-school lateral move that his Cougar predecessors like George Raveling and Cindy Fredrick enjoyed so much. Now, former AD Jim Sterk is forced into making an interesting choice. Scrap Bennett Ball and find the best coach available, or find a not as well qualified coach who can keep the system (and possibly the momentum of the program) going strong.
Obviously, Sterk chose resume over system, going with Ken Bone as the new head coach, despite the clear change in style of play and tempo. This next point could be argued a bit, but the best choice to keep the old system around would have been to hire assistant Ben Johnson. But with no prior head coaching experience on his slate, the best move for WSU and Johnson was ultimately to keep Ben around as an assistant. While Johnson has provided a lift in recruiting (including re-recruiting Brock Motum and the other Bennett holdovers), he clearly isn't around for the purposes of slowing down the game or instilling the virtues of 40 minutes of man-to-man defense.
If Ken Bone doesn't work out, I think the biggest regret we'll have as fans is that we didn't push hard enough to keep Bennett Ball around. Although, then again, who would've taken the helm under that mantra? Again, Ben Johnson had never run a collegiate program, which is almost a mandatory requirement in this day and age (there are some notable exceptions, of course, like Tony Bennett, or Mark Few, or any number of assistant coaches who are essentially head coaches in-waiting). But outside of that, who? One of Bo Ryan's assistants at Wisconsin? A slow style mid-major coach with no recruiting ties to the Northwest and no high major conference experience? Stew Morrill plays slow at Utah State, but I always felt we'd be doing to the Aggies what Virginia did to us. Probably even worse, considering Morrill has been there for over a decade, is an institution at USU, and is a native of Utah.
Ultimately, we all agreed then (and a lot of us still believe) that Ken Bone was the best man available. He has a great head coaching resume, Pac-10 assistant coaching experience, NCAA tournament experience at Portland State and recruiting ties embedded deep in the Northwest. The important thing to remember is this: we can always get it back. If Bone doesn't work out, it may be in our interest to find a Bennett disciple somewhere out there, or another coach that could help us potentially reclaim some of that lost glory. Maybe it will be Tony once again when he's fired in two years by UVA. Heck, Stew Morrill might still be available once again, and we've all seen with Dana Altman what a difference a few years makes. Coaching is as unpredictable today as it is lucrative.
For now, all we can do is hope Ken Bone's system works. Root for it, and enjoy the lack of lengthy scoring droughts and occasional offensive futility. But if Bone doesn't work out, it's back to the drawing board. And that drawing board could have a lovely picture of Dick Bennett on it.
Still, and this is important: it doesn't matter what style you're playing when you're winning.