EUGENE – During the early, promising stages of the 2017-18 Washington State season that feel almost prehistoric at this point, the Cougars managed to fend off one of the college basketball programs their head coach presided over long before his career arrived in Pullman.
An 84-79 upset win over Saint Mary’s at the Wooden Legacy tournament was – and still is, perhaps with the exception of the title win that followed – the high point of Ernie Kent’s fourth season with the Cougars.
When WSU returned from Fullerton, California, with the Wooden Legacy trophy, its fans expected an encore. Instead, the Cougars have lost 14 of their next 17 games, leading up to Sunday’s Pac-12 contest against the Oregon Ducks (16-8, 6-5) – the second encounter of the season between Kent and a former employer.
It might require the high point of Kent’s WSU career to pull this one off.
Winless in games played in the state of Oregon since Kent took over in 2014, the Cougars (9-14, 1-10) are coming off a 92-64 blowout loss to a 10th-place Oregon State team that had lost its previous four contests before throttling WSU in Corvallis on Thursday. Thirty-two points represent the largest margin of defeat for the Cougars this season and matched the third-largest margin of defeat of the Kent era in Pullman.
OSU was only supposed to represent a warm-up for WSU heading into Sunday’s test in Eugene. A Final Four team in 2017 that lost four starters – three of whom now have prominent roles on NBA teams – Oregon faces an uphill battle if it wishes to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in seven years under Dana Altman, the man who replaced Kent in 2010.
The Ducks were trounced by Stanford 96-61 two games ago – a game Altman considered the worst of his UO tenure – but followed up with a defensive masterpiece against a Washington team that had entered with four consecutive wins. Oregon beat the Huskies 65-40, allowing the visitors to shoot just 15 of 54 (27 percent) from the field.
Sophomore point guard Payton Pritchard, the only returning starter, paces Oregon at 14.3 points per game and is Altman’s assists leader at 112. New Mexico grad transfer Elijah Brown, the son of Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Brown, scores 13.1 ppg, and former five-star recruit Troy Brown gives the Ducks another 12.1.
The Cougars head to Eugene with a depleted roster and getting through Sunday’s game without enduring more injury is just as essential as competing in it.
In Thursday’s game at Oregon State, 3-point specialist Carter Skaggs suffered an ankle injury that precluded him from finishing the second half. Kent couldn’t speak to the severity of the injury afterward. Additionally, guard Milan Acquaah missed the game with an injury and Drick Bernstine played limited minutes because of a nagging knee problem.
A lineup that included reserves Arinze Chidom, Steven Shpreyregin and Davante Cooper gave the Cougars an offensive surge against OSU. Kent said he’d reward the unit with extended minutes against the Ducks.
“I was proud of that group that was on the floor that doesn’t get a lot of chance to play,” Kent said. “They’re going to play a lot more because they battled. They battled hard. … I think our depth is good.”
Kent won 235 games in his 13 seasons at Oregon. Although he’s been back to Matthew Knight Arena multiple times as an enemy, the WSU coach said he still expects his emotions to run high.
“I spent almost half of my adult life in Oregon and from the perspective of going to school, living there, leaving, coming back, working, leaving there again,” Kent said. “That’s a lot of time and my kids are all in Oregon, my granddaughter’s in Oregon. Anytime you have those kind of connections … there’s going to be some emotion there.”