Washington State Week: Evaluating The Recent PastPosted by Connor Pelton on July 30th, 2012
It was just five short seasons ago when Washington State hit an all-time peak. Under the direction of head coach Tony Bennett, the 2007-08 Cougars won the first 14 games they played (including victories against Baylor, Washington, and USC away from home, and Gonzaga in Spokane), finished the season with 24 wins, and earned a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While there they demolished a solid Winthrop team by 31 and beat fifth-seeded Notre Dame by 20. They even hung with top-seeded North Carolina for a half in the Sweet Sixteen before the Tar Heels pulled away. Behind Pauley Pavilion and the McKale Center, Beasley Coliseum was one of the toughest places to play in the Pac-10, thanks to a large and relentless “ZZU CRU.” You’d have to go back pretty far to find a time when the Cougars were this prominent on a conference and national scale.
Excitement in Pullman remained high in the offseason when Bennett turned down an offer to rebuild the Indiana program. However, that would be one of the final good things to happen to the team in the last five years. The losses of Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill proved to be too much to overcome, and Washington State ended the 2008-09 season by bowing out in the first round of the NIT. With Taylor Rochestie, Daven Harmeling, and Aron Baynes graduating at the end of that year, Bennett decided to jump ship as well to Virginia. The move puzzled Cougar fans as Bennett had been a candidate for many high-profile jobs in past offseasons, and yet he chose Charlottesville over those destinations. Bennett’s replacement came in the form of Ken Bone, who had built Portland State into a Big Sky power. He would be charged with getting the Cougars back to NCAA Tournaments, a tough task as Bennett left a depleted roster in his wake.
In Bone’s three seasons on the Palouse, the Cougars have not gone dancing. They came close in 2010-11, but five losses in their final eight games relegated them to the NIT. It’s not like Bone hasn’t had the players, either. He had the luxury of small forward Klay Thompson, who played three seasons in Pullman (two under Bone) before becoming a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Needless to say, the Cougs are now a world away from those 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons in which they made the NCAA Tournament two times in a row, the first time that had ever happened at WSU. The winning culture that Bennett brought in is still evident by the growth of the fan base and the big non-conference games that the Cougs play, but it is quickly fading as each danceless season rolls by.