The Ken Bone era gets underway here in a few hours, and with that tip off comes not just a new coach, but a new way of playing basketball that dramatically diverges from the style we fans embraced with a zest and zeal unparalleled in modern Cougar athletics history.
Games with possessions in the 70s. Transition baskets. Ball pressure on the perimeter.
Yeah, it's going to be different. A lot different.
Sure, it's a little scary -- after all, the only significant success most of us have ever known as Cougar basketball fans came from that unique Bennett style that stressed discipline and execution above all else. But is the change necessarily a death knell to the winning we've come to expect? After all, for as much as we loved Bennett ball, it's not like that system had been proven to be the WSU key to consistently winning over the span of decades. No one really knows what the key is to being a consistent winner at WSU, because no one has really been consistently successful at all.
Back when Dick Bennett was getting ready for his second year, I interviewed him for a freelance piece for a magazine. I asked him a question about his slowdown style, and he bristled. Noticeably. So I explored it a little with him. We ended up talking a long time, but the gist of what he said was this: When I get the athletes to run, I'll run. But I've never had the athletes to run, so I coach the way I have to coach to get my particular set of players to be successful.
Do I actually believe that Dick Bennett would actually run if he had the Tar Heels' roster? Not a chance. Like any good coach, he has an unfailing belief in his way. But I think his point was valid -- if you don't have the horses to run, why in the heck would you try to play a style you can't hope to be successful at? Instead, play a style that tries to level the playing field with your particular athletes -- athletes who actually are willing to come and buy into a massive rebuilding job. Play to your strengths: discipline, decision making, effort. Those are the things you can control, regardless of natural talent.
The question, then, really is this: Does Bone have the kind of athletes necessary to play -- and win -- with an up-tempo style?For the first time in this program's history, we can answer that question with a qualified "yes." There are enough athletes on the roster to actually entertain the notion of playing a transition style without being laughed out of a room -- or run off the court. But there are not enough of them here yet, and in order to continue to get those kinds of athletes to Pullman, Bone's got to be successful. Otherwise, the vicious cycle we Coug fans know all too well takes over, and you don't get the elite athletes and you slide back down into mediocrity.
Can he do it? I honestly don't know. There's no data on tempo and such out there to analyze teams from before 2004 to see if anyone has really been successful in his kind of a style, but I'm not sure it really matters. The landscape of college athletics changes so rapidly that I'm not convinced that history has to dictate future expectations. There are more major conference basketball recruits than ever in the Northwest. Gonzaga is a big-time program. Washington is a big-time program. It's a different time.
But if we were to reach back into the past for some evidence that this can work, I do remember a WSU team that had an awful lot of good athletes. My freshman year -- Kevin Eastman's first year -- we had a pretty good squad. Mark Hendrickson, Donminic Ellison, Tavares Mack, Shamon Antrum, Isaac Fontaine, Carlos Daniel ... there were some pretty athletic dudes in there. They actually played what I would consider a style very similar to Bone's: Lots of 3s (Hendrickson, Antrum, Ellison and Fontaine were all excellent long-range shooters) and they'd push it when it was available. And they were successful -- only NIT successful, but that's because Hendrickson missed six weeks with a broken hand. It wasn't necessarily a transition style, but it certainly wasn't walk-it-up either.
So, if I was to look at that, I'd have to say that yeah, Bone can be successful -- but he's gotta recruit as well as anyone before him has.
Kelvin Sampson was able to get the athletes to Pullman that Eastman rode for a couple of years (although I don't want to know how Sampson did it), but he's been the only one to really do it in the last two decades. Bone looks good so far, in landing Reggie Moore -- who already has done things athletically I'm pretty sure I've never seen a Cougar basketball player do -- and convincing the other recruits to stay on. But, ultimately, it's going to come down to momentum. If they win some this year and a lot next year, I think he can do it, because it starting to look like Bone could sell ice to an Eskimo. And it doesn't hurt to have Moore on board, who will all-too-happily sell urban kids on the virtues of Pullman.
But just like nobody had won here the Bennett way, nobody's proven they can get the kind of talent to Pullman to run and win consistently. They've either failed spectacularly (Paul Graham and Kevin Eastman) or never stuck around long enough to find out if it was possible (Sampson). And I suppose that's where we felt some safety in the comfort of the Bennett system: Even if the overall talent level wasn't top notch -- like last year -- there was a belief that we still could do some things simply by trusting the system.
And I guess that ties in with the final thing that concerns me about the uncertainty of the future. Under the Bennetts, the program had an identity. Yeah, the success had a lot to do with it, but for some reason, we all really, really identified with the scrappy mentality of Bennett ball. I suppose it's because it fit right in with the notion that Cougs have to do things a little bit differently to be successful, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. We were unique, and I think that's part of what you saw in the outpouring of support for the program. We played smart, thinking-man's basketball. It made us one-of-a-kind in the conference. And there was a lot of pride in that.
We're obviously going to no longer have that identity. Will fans continue to support the program -- even during the lean times, as they did with the Bennetts -- the way we did in the past without that to hang onto? I think that remains to be seen.
Ultimately, it's going to come down to what Bone is able to do with this group of players. Tony Bennett was able to turn two spectacular years into Klay Thompson, DeAngelo Casto, Mike Harthun and Marcus Capers. Will Bone be able to turn those guys into the next generation of great Cougar basketball players?
That's the task before him tonight.