Cougars choose Portland State coach, calling Bone the "contemporary" choice.

Three years ago, a friend in the business who had just watched UCLA grovel past Washington State, 50-30 — you can look it up — asked a question: Could the case be made that WSU ought to just fire Dick Bennett?

A bit rash, a bit brash, that query. But for all the progress the Cougars made from 2003-06 under the senior Bennett, and all the glitter they reaped in the next three seasons under his son Tony, the point is worth entertaining: Did WSU, in playing a relatively exclusive style, put itself at risk for the vast percentage of available recruits?

In some form, that question loomed over Jim Sterk and his posse as the WSU athletic director went looking for a coach to replace Tony Bennett. Monday, WSU came up with him in Ken Bone, 50, the Seattle Pacific head man from 1990 through 2002, ex-lieutenant to Lorenzo Romar at Washington, and recently, back-to-back NCAA-partier at Portland State.

First off, nobody need apologize for any of the past six years of Bennett-ball. No matter the gear-grinding of the early years, ultimately it produced some of WSU’s best times in history.

In search of a successor, Sterk and Co. talked to coaches at the Final Four in Detroit. The real reckoning came Sunday in Seattle, when they interviewed Bone and Utah State coach Stew Morrill.

Nobody will say it, but those were the two finalists.

Morrill was a guy who has proved himself one of the country’s cagiest strategists, using a lot of principles of an old mentor, Mike Montgomery — including cue cards on the sideline wielded by an assistant, dictating offensive plays. His teams annually rank near the top nationally in field-goal percentage.

Bone was the less-tested coach who was associated with a willingness to allow players more freedom on the floor. Five years younger, he was seen as more in tune with today’s playing generation.

One figure at WSU familiar with the choice said the school saw Morrill as “much more traditional.” The Cougars looked at Bone as “contemporary.”

Portland State averaged only a point more than Utah State this year. But, playing two fewer games, PSU put up 272 more three-point attempts.

Understand, both traditional and contemporary can work. And it’s questionable whether WSU could have successfully uprooted Morrill anyway, had it been inclined. He loves the backwater burg of Logan, Utah, has family nearby, and doesn’t covet the brighter lights of a bigger conference. Why should he? He’s had a 138-46 record there in league games.

The Cougars thought about what they have on hand. They thought about how best to rescue the four signees who joined the program in November. And they thought about what course to take, when you’ve become so deeply identified with playing a certain way.

“We had to balance all that,” said the WSU official. “I think Ken will be a much better ‘balancer,’ if you will.”

Watching the WSU offense this year was often agonizing, an exercise like lying under a car and straining a wrench at a bad angle against a nut with worn edges. My sense is that Bennett was similarly flummoxed, to the extent that he was ready to make some changes.

“From his dad to him,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said Monday night from Detroit, “he definitely loosened the reins. With the makeup of this team and with the other guys he was bringing in, I could see that would have been a continued, steady pattern.

“At Virginia, I’ll bet it’ll be loosened right away.”

Romar called Bone a guy who “does things right, a hard worker, very genuine.”

One of Bone’s early tasks will be to assess the incoming recruits. The father of one of them, Sacramento-area point guard Xavier Thames, earlier said his son wanted out of his letter, but is willing to be re-recruited.

As it happens, Ray Thames has been in touch with an old friend, the father of Portland State forward Julius Thomas of Stockton, Calif., to get a reading on Bone.

“They like him,” said the senior Thames. “They think he’s a great guy, and they like his coaching style.”

As for his son, Ray Thames said, “He still thinks Washington State is a really good fit for him. We just want to see if it’s the right fit.”

The Cougars just did a little of that themselves, assessing how to get from where they’ve been to where they want to go. Ken Bone was that vehicle, and that man.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com