WSU fans wonder if Bennett is leaving

Here’s a story freelance sports reporter Howie Stalwick, who covered the Washington State-North Carolina game in Charlotte, wrote for us Friday about speculation that IU will hire Bennett:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — George Raveling, one of the relatively few coaches who was able to coax more wins than losses out of basketball teams at Washington State, was succinct when describing the difficulty of recruiting players to tiny, isolated Pullman, Wash.

“Pullman,” Raveling liked to say, “is not the end of the world — but you can see it from there.”

Washington State fans wonder aloud if Tony Bennett can see the end of his stay in Pullman — and, perhaps, his arrival in Bloomington — coming in the next few days.

Bennett, whose name has been linked in media speculation to the Indiana job for several weeks, has repeatedly dodged questions about his future at WSU. Nothing changed Thursday night after the 21st-ranked Cougars were crushed 68-47 by top-ranked North Carolina in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Right now, I’m coach at Washington State. I just want to talk about the seniors,” Bennett said to a small mob of reporters outside WSU’s locker room at the Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk said he has yet to ask Bennett about his plans for next season “because I think he’s very happy where he’s at.”

Of course, outsiders speculate that Bennett might be even happier if a school like Indiana can double the $895,000 (counting bonuses) he’s expected to make this season at Washington State. Bennett would have to pay the Cougars $500,000 to void the seven-year contract he signed last summer.

Asked if he expects Bennett to remain at WSU, Sterk said, “Yeah. He enjoys what’s happening. He’s building a program here.”

Bennett has tied the school record of 26 wins during each of his first two seasons as a college head coach. He assisted his father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, for the last three of WSU’s 10 consecutive losing seasons before the Cougars shocked the college basketball world by going 26-8 last season and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. The Cougars finished 26-9 this season.

“He’s done a fabulous job,” Sterk said.

Theoretically, recruiting and winning would be easier at Indiana than Washington State. WSU’s incoming recruiting class is widely regarded as possibly the best in school history, but only one player is rated among the top 100 high school seniors by Scout.com, and that player is ranked 96th.

The 2007-08 seniors who made up the core of the first full recruiting class of the were lightly regarded for the most part. The Bennetts emphasized defense and teamwork to mold the Cougars into a nationally respected team that was ranked as high as fourth (a school record) in the polls this season.

Bennett called Pullman “a wonderful place” earlier this week, and he has repeatedly stressed how much his family enjoys living in the small college town. However, the Cougars graduate three starters who were instrumental in turning around the program, and Bennett may feel his work is done in Pullman.

“Washington State is the type of job where you have to rebuild and recycle and build things up,” Bennett said. “The next step is to get us back to this point again, whether it’s a year or two or three.”