After Dick Bennett agonized on the bench through his first season of Project Washington State, it's tough to accept his assessment of Year Two.
"What happens next," he said, "is the most difficult part of rebuilding."
More difficult than squeezing as many victories out of a moribund program as it had managed in the previous two seasons combined? More difficult than breaking the mother of all losing streaks at the Pac-10's most hallowed gym? More difficult than ending a 34-month winless drought on the road? More difficult than actually getting the Cougars to guard somebody?
He might be right. Bennett's change of scenery -- he took the WSU job in the wake of a premature retirement from Wisconsin -- gave the Cougars a healthy shaking up, and it showed in the 13-16 record and increased competitiveness. The Cougars went from the Pac-10's worst road team to one of its best; no other club had a better league record on the road (4-5) than at home (3-6).
Now, with the departure of three seniors and a couple of mutually agreed-upon defections, Bennett has invested the program's future in six freshmen.
"We probably will have more expectations," Bennett admits, "and yet I'm not sure we'll be ready for all of that."
FRONTCOURTThe Cougars will remain one of the nation's least imposing Division I teams up front, but Bennett does not seem as troubled by that as you might think.
"We're not particularly big nor particularly athletic," he said. "But I think we'll be more skilled and that's an improvement."
The Cougs don't have a returning player taller than 6-foot-7, and senior Shami Gill (5.9 ppg) is hardly the wide-body force to build a team around, yet his game took big jump in both effort and dependability. More spectacular is 6-6 bruiser Jeff Varem (9.6 ppg), whose Christmas arrival last year gave WSU a different inside dimension. Chris Schlatter (4.6 ppg) saw his scoring numbers take a dip as he settled into a different role.
Bennett will obviously need contributions from his incoming class, and Robbie Cowgill would seem to be the most likely to contend for a starting berth, though 6-10, 257-pound Chris Henry will add some welcome size.
BACKCOURTThe graduation of Marcus Moore is both a blessing and a curse, for even as he admirably controlled what Bennett called the "extravagance" of his game, so much of what the Cougars did -- good and bad -- revolved around the veteran point guard. Now that job will, in all likelihood, fall to a raw freshman, Derrick Low, who arrives from Hawaii with impeccable credentials but obviously has much to learn about the Pac-10 game.
He will have a veteran to help him along in senior Thomas Kelati (11.1 ppg), who was dynamite down the stretch until a disastrous game in the Pac-10 tournament.
"If Thomas can continue to make steps in being more assertive and aggressive, he could have a very good year," Bennett said. "He's a very important player for us."
Bennett also needs someone among his reserve guards to make a step forward. Anthony Grant suffered through a dismal shooting year. Randy Green and walk-on Isaiah Simmons also struggled, though Simmons showed enough poise with the ball in traffic that Bennett awarded him a scholarship. At least one of the other incoming guards, Josh Akognon or Kyle Weaver, could be a candidate for a redshirt season.
FINAL ANALYSISBennett sees reasons for optimism that have a great deal to do with his freshman class.
"I believe we'll be a much better passing team. I don't think you can ever be a good team until you can really pass the ball, and all of these kids have that skill," he said. "And I'm hopeful we'll have more diversified scoring, and that our depth will be legitimate."
Still, the Pac-10 is bound to be better than it was a year ago, and Bennett is banking heavily on an inexperienced cast.
"It's one thing to become competitive and another to become a program worthy of respect," he said. "That's a hard process. We had limitations that plagued us and we probably will this year as well. I just hope we don't have to go back to square one."