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Ernie Kent cranking up the pace as Washington State enters 2017-18 season

The Washington State Cougars will look to Malachi Flynn, left, and Milan Acquaah to lift them from the Pac-12 cellar. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Washington State Cougars will look to Malachi Flynn, left, and Milan Acquaah to lift them from the Pac-12 cellar. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – For all the time they spend wearing down their bodies with shuttle sprints, hill runs and VersaClimber intervals, the Washington State Cougars probably had their most exhaustive cardio program of the 2016-17 season in an actual game, against Creighton at the Paradise Jam.

They spent large chunks of it chasing the Bluejays down in transition – rarely to any avail – and the Cougars were dog-tired by the time the final horn sounded on a 103-77 Creighton win. It was the kind of early-season defeat you’d usually crumple into a paper ball and toss into the nearest recycling bin.

That wasn’t Ernie Kent’s move. He saved the notes and was so fascinated by the tempo-driven offense the Bluejays had employed to can 15 3-pointers and score 19 fast-break points, that WSU’s coach made sure to get a copy of Greg McDermott’s secret recipe before leaving the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Creighton coach offered it complimentary. His Bluejays had been using a compressed shot clock in practice – just 12 seconds to inbound the ball, push it and shoot it.

Now Kent’s trying out the 12-second shot clock in year No. 4 at WSU, hoping the Cougars can start playing with the pace and pizzazz that made his teams at Saint Mary’s and Oregon such a hot ticket for so many years.

“It makes you play faster, react faster, think offense quicker, stay in attack mode quicker,” said Kent, who used different variations of the shortened shot clock at both of his previous stops, but never 12 seconds. “And quite frankly, it gives you a confidence level to be able to shoot, knowing you’ve got a green light to shoot it and everything. Then when you go back to that normal shot clock, it keeps the pace of the game moving.”

Sort of like swinging a baseball bat with a doughnut, and then without one.

Kent brings back just one starter and just 22.8 points per game from a team that scored 70 last season and finished with a 13-18 overall and a 6-12 mark in Pac-12 Conference play. WSU missed out on the postseason for the sixth year in a row and received the last-place vote when the preseason Pac-12 poll was released a few weeks ago.

But for the first time, the Cougars roster is made up exclusively of Kent recruits. Which means, above all else, it’s tailor-made to play the game with speed.

“In this system we’re playing, we don’t necessarily have a point guard in transition,” Kent said. “One time it’ll be Milan (Acquaah), next time it’ll be Malachi (Flynn), next time it’ll be Robo (Franks). Drick (Bernstine) is probably the fastest guy with the ball coming down the floor in transition.”

And Bernstine is a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward.

The Cougars are already old pros with the 12-second shot clock. They installed it this summer and go to it whenever they convene for 5-on-5 scrimmage scenarios. It’s a chaotic way of playing the game, but now the Cougars feel they’re physically conditioned to hustle up and down the court at a rate many of their opponents shouldn’t be able to match.

“The first couple practices was a lot of turnovers, a lot of stoppage because of exhaustion when we were tired,” junior guard Viont’e Daniels said. “But as we started getting more conditioning … we got better. And our decision-making got better while doing it.”

Now it’s at least a controlled chaos.

“I tried to do it the last three years, we threw the ball all over the place,” Kent said. “I don’t think our skill set was as good as this team.”

And Kent figures to have the best crop of shooters he’s had as the Cougars coach. WSU finished a respectable fifth in the Pac-12 last year, shooting the 3 at a 36.5 percent clip. The top three teams in the league all did 38 percent or better last year, which could be something for WSU to aim for. Either way, the Cougars will have more people contributing. Kent’s lineups will usually have no fewer than four capable 3-point shooters on the floor at the same time, and depending on the matchup, the coach could very well deploy five marksmen to maximize the team’s run-and-gun potential.

“Small” lineups and tempo offenses have both found a home in professional basketball. Teams play at a breakneck pace to get the ball upcourt and find the first best shot – no matter how many seconds have elapsed from the shot clock.

“If you look at Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, OKC, even with the 24-second clock, those teams are on average shooting the ball in 12 seconds because of the pace or flow of the game,” Kent said. “And we’re a team that wants to get up and down and play numbers and we can pass it well and shoot it well.”

The caveat is that the Cougars will have to defend, and it wasn’t a strong suit of theirs in 2016-17, when WSU ranked ninth in the league allowing 76.6 points per game. For their transition game to work, the Cougars will also have to pound the defensive boards – another weakness, according to the numbers from a year ago. WSU was second to last with just 36.2 defensive rebounds per game.

“It’s all predicated,” Kent said, “on playing good defense and getting stops.”

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Player to watch

The Cougars wore rookie point guard Malachi Flynn thin last season and it started to show midway through the Pac-12 slate. Through the first eight conference games, Flynn posted double digits six times. Through the final 11, it happened only twice. And twice in the last three games, Flynn didn’t score at all.

The one thing that never dipped was Flynn’s minutes. Just one year removed from finishing up his high school career at Bellarmine Prep, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard was often logging more than 35 minutes per game against high-caliber opponents and finished his freshman season playing 33.2 minutes on average.

It won’t get any easier for Flynn as a sophomore – which is to say, the load won’t get any lighter. As a 31-game starter in 2016-17, it’s hard to imagine Flynn taking on an expanded role. That’s precisely what fourth-year coach Ernie Kent expects of him, though, now that Ike Iroegbu, Josh Hawkinson, Conor Clifford and Charles Callison have graduated.

“(I) fully expect him to just embrace that role of being the man, the guy, the leader of this team,” Kent said.

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Key games

The Cougars are staying in the continental U.S. for their early-season tournament this year. After a trip to the Paradise Jam in 2016, WSU heads to Fullerton, California, for the 2017 Wooden Legacy on Nov. 23. They’re guaranteed a meeting with Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph’s in the opening round, but could also see Saint Mary’s, Georgia or San Diego State.

The Cougars only have two true road games on the nonconference slate and one of those is the annual meeting with Idaho, on Dec. 6. The Cougars and Vandals will play the 273rd edition of the Battle of the Palouse at the Cowan Spectrum.

WSU fans in Spokane will have an easy commute to the team’s Dec. 20 game against Big-12 opponent Kansas State. The Cougars and Wildcats will tip off late at Spokane Arena (8 p.m.), but the game is set to air on national television (ESPN2).

How will WSU fare against the Pac-12’s elite this season? The Cougars should know early on. They open conference play at UCLA and USC – respectively picked to finish third and second in the preseason media poll.

WSU and UW will contend for Evergreen State bragging rights on Jan. 6 at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman and on Jan. 28 at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle.

Arizona, a hot pick to win the 2018 national title, makes its always anticipated trip to the Palouse on Jan. 31.

Also keep an eye on the games between Ernie Kent and his former school, Oregon. The Cougars and Ducks play twice – in Eugene on Feb. 11 and in Pullman on March 1.

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Pac-12 prediction

1. Arizona

2. USC

3. UCLA

4. Oregon

5. Stanford

6. Oregon State

7. Arizona State

8. Utah

9. Colorado

10. Washington

11. Cal

➤ 12. Washington State


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