March 27, 2008
By Jason Krump
Even before the Washington State men's basketball team secured a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, the program's first since 1941, the 2008 season already had earned a historic place in the annals of Cougar basketball history.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament, although an infrequent occurrence during the program's history, is not unprecedented for the Washington State University men's basketball program.
Reaching it consistently, however, is another matter.
During the 2008 season, a banner hung from the ceiling of Beasley Coliseum signifying the NCAA Tournament appearances during the 100-plus year history of the program.
Set adjacent to the 1917 National Championship banner, the banner denoted the program's NCAA Tournament appearances in 1941, 1980, 1983, 1994, and 2007.
Prior to 2007, what each of these appearances had in common is that the following year's team could not repeat the achievement of its predecessor, that is, another tournament appearance.
"This isn't something that happens every year, seeing on the banner how few and far between it's been here," said Robbie Cowgill of the Cougars' NCAA Tournament appearances.
Following a 2007 season that culminated in the program's first NCAA appearance since 1994, head coach Tony Bennett knew the challenge that was ahead of him and the team heading into the 2008 campaign.
"At the beginning of this year, a lot of people said are you going to be a one-hit wonder, are you going to just be a flash in the pan," he said. "It was our strong desire to not be that."
Prior to Dick and Tony Bennett's arrival to WSU in 2003, the Cougars had reached the NCAA Tournament just those four times. What each of those instances has in common is that the next year's team was unable to sustain the momentum from the previous year's success.
After a 1941 season that saw a Jack Friel led team reach the national championship game, the 1942 Cougars finished 21-8, but lost their final three games of the season to finish third in the Pacific Coast Conference North Division.
Under head coach George Raveling, the 1980 Cougars put together a season that culminated in the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since the '41 national runner-up season; however, the 1981 Cougars fell to 10-17 overall and finished last in the Pac-10 in 1981.
Two years later in 1983, Raveling once again led the Cougars back to the NCAAs, this time reaching the second round, falling to No. 4 Virginia 54-49. Once again, the momentum was stymied the next year, as the '84 Cougars managed only a 10-18 overall mark.
It was not until the early `90s that the Cougars threatened to reach the NCAAs again. Two years removed from an NIT season in 1992, the 1994 Cougars broke an 11-year NCAA drought. The following season, no NCAA bid was forthcoming; however, the Cougars did earn an NIT bid each of the next two seasons, advancing as far as the quarterfinals in 1995.
So when the team earned an NCAA bid in 2007, its first in 13 years, history dictated that a repeat trip in 2008 was not in the works.
But that dubious history was made history when the Cougars were selected to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, ensuring that, for the first time in program history, consecutive appearances to the "Big Dance" would occur.
Granted, the Cougars' selection to the 2008 tournament did not come as any surprise as the Cougars were safely in the 65-team field with a 24-8 record and a third place Pac-10 finish, but that did not lessen the significance of the achievement.
"It's huge; it's huge for me, this program, and everybody else on this team," Kyle Weaver said.
"It's definitely something that is special and we're proud of," Cowgill said.
For Bennett, the significance extends far beyond history.
"What made this regular season very gratifying is to return back to this tournament," Bennett continued. "It does mean a lot because we are trying to build a basketball tradition here. This was a very important year in the building of our program."
That importance will be signified when, before the 2008-09 season tips off, this addition is placed on the NCAA Tournament banner.
"When I come back years from now to be able to see that on the banner, and know I was a part of it, that will be cool," Weaver said.