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Ernie Kent Q&A: coaching confidence

Since arriving at WSU, Ernie Kent has said that the greatest barrier between the Cougars and success is a lack of confidence.

None of the players, who probably won a great deal in high school, have won much in their collegiate careers and Kent thinks that reminding them what it's like to dominate on the court will put them in a mindset to once again be successful.

But is confidence possible to coach? Kent says yes.

"A lot of what we do in our basketball program is to wrap our arms around these young men and give them the opportunity that we're in this together and have them grow internally," Kent said during today's WSU press conference.

"A lot of them need to grow internally because of what they've been through in their lives, but at the end of the day the fact that they're on a Division I campus, for some of them and what they've gone through in their personal lives, are already a success," he added. "And need to empty their backpacks of lack of confidence and guilt, fear, shame, whatever, and let's move forward. So, we spend a lot of time talking about that every day, to get them where they need to be mentally before we even get to the floor to practice or play a game."

The Cougars sure looked more confident in a 91-71 pasting of Texas-San Antonio last week but will obviously face a much bigger challenge against No. 9 Gonzaga tomorrow.

Kent spoke about WSU's upcoming game and much more today. We've got video and a transcription, after the jump.

(Does Gonzaga have any weaknesses you've seen on film?)

Ha, I don't know that they have any weaknesses. Probably it would be playing against a team that has better talent would be their weakness, because they're loaded. I feel like I've known mark for some time and watched his teams from afar for some time, too, and what I see is an excellent basketball team and I've said it's his best team he's had because they've got depth, they've got size, they can shoot it, they can beat you inside, they can beat you outside, they're good defensively and they really, really know who they are: their identity and how they play and obviously with the amount of time they have tremendous continuity in who they are and how to play.

(Do you try to match up with their skilled posts or scheme around them?)

I cannot tell you that because he does not need any help from me. He is an excellent basketball coach. I want to be careful with anything we're going to do because I have no idea exactly what we're going to do yet. I'll have that figured out by this afternoon, though.

(What have you seen from Jordan Railey in practice since the Texas-San Antonio game?)

We've had one practice since the then, and that was yesterday, and it was our best Monday practice after a day off. Typically we take Sundays off and come back to Mondays and Monday's (practices) seem to be, or tend to be, a little bit stagnant. Yesterday's was an excellent practice and I just saw a team that played with a lot of energy and practiced with a lot of confidence.

(Is that confidence a reaction to the UTSA win?)

I think it's their reaction to a maturation process. They're just growing up and they're feeling more confident as they try to find out exactly who they are. We're still in the process of determining our identity, who we are as a basketball team, how we want to play, how do you get your stops, who are your go-to guys, all of those things we needed to figure out whereas Gonzaga has all of those things in place already so I think the thing that I saw was a team that is understanding how to practice and get their results in the games. The next step for us now is we're getting ready to step up on a platform that is going to force us to grow, and that's a good thing. You're not going to go into that environment and play against a team of that caliber and not be on your A-game – you will get blown out. So, for us to be in a situation to have an opportunity in this game you're going to have to play at a higher level, and that's a good thing for this team right now.

(After playing so many games on the road is your team better prepared to play in a tough environment?)

I think the UTEP environment was a really good environment because those are really basketball-knowledgeable fans and they really appreciated the effort by both of those teams and you felt like you were in an environment totally by yourself. We probably had 24 people there. At least up in this environment there will be some Coug colors in the stands that you'll be able to look at so you won't feel totally like you're in an environment by yourself. It's an hour up the road as well so I just think when you talk about the environment that we're getting ready to play in, if you are a player you're excited and you get up to play in this environment. It might be something that the Zags are used to but, obviously, we're not used to it here within our program, yet.

But for this team to go into that environment they should be excited to play in that environment. If you are a player you will get excited to play.

(What are you hoping to see out of Que Johnson against Gonzaga?)

He is a big-time scorer that has not shot the ball well (or) played well consistently, and he was the one guy last week in the game that probably was not on his game. I feel like everybody else, they were there, and yet he did some things well on the floor. But he did some things he continues to need to work on so I would expect again, in this environment, that he has that kind of game that if called upon, he's ready to play.

(Does playing two games in Spokane and one in Pullman provide motivation?)

That was something that they worked out last year, so for me that's a nonfactor with me. I don't even worry about that stuff. It's a game that's on our schedule that we have to play. They're an outstanding basketball team; it's a good thing for us to play that kind fo competition because that will get you ready for Pac-12 play, home and road. To play that type of talent, that type of size, to play in that type of environment with that type of energy in the building, all of this is good. There's nothing negative about going up there and playing a game, nothing at all. Would you like to have it even out? Of course. But is there a negative to it, no, there's not a negative. Let's go up and let's play.

(Who is the toughest player on Gonzaga to guard?)

Well, you can kind of pick your poison. They're all tough to me, I don't think you can let any of them go off and have a monster night yet they have several players. Kevin Pangos is capable of doing that, Byron Wesley is capable of doing that and Wiltjer's capable. They have so many guys that can put up numbers so it isn't like you've got to stop any one guy. They all can score and what you have to do is really be on your game. We have to come ready to play, we have to.

(Southeastern Louisiana had success slowing the game down. Are you thinking that way?)

But see, if I tell you that I've told you what I'm going to do. What I will say is that we have what we need to do to play against them. What that particular thing is, it's more in our case about confidence, and it really is. It doesn't matter what you're game-planning, whether you're going to slow, fast, zone, box, triangle and two, whatever. If we don't go up there and play with a lot of confidence, if we don't go up there and shoot the ball it's going to be a long night for us, regardless of what we do. We cannot manufacture enough points with our defense that says we're going to get out and get easy (shots), you just can't do that.  You've got to be able to shoot it when the shots are there, you've got to be able to play smart, sound and you have to be confident. So, it isn't so much about a gameplan about what we're going to do to scheme against them as much as it is when we get off that bus in that arena and walk into that building, are you a confident basketball team that's ready to play. If we are, we'll play well.

(Against Arizona the Wildcats were able to put a bigger player on the ball. Will you?)

Keep in mind when Arizona did that they have two NBA studs sitting on that backline where they can pressure you and get up the line and dare you to drive with those shot-blockers sitting back there. That's not us. There's a reason Sean Miller did that and felt like he could take away a 3 and force someone to drive.

Again, in terms of putting a bigger player on (Pangos), it isn't so much about scheming for us as it is about confidence because we have to score with them. They're a team that can put up points, and you're going to have to put up points, and if you can't do that we will not be in the situation where we need to worry about who is guarding Pangos in the last possession or two of a game.

(Ike Iroegbu played well against Gonzaga last year. Have you looked at his performance in that game?)

No, I haven't and the reason for that is that was last year with a different coach, different style of play, different circumstances and everything else. I think what you saw in Ike is what I hope you see in a number of guys on this team, again, the intensity of the environment, the energy in the building – players rise up well in those environments and I think that's what you got out of Ike last year. Very much the way when we went down to UTEP I thought we played particularly well in that environment so I'm hoping again getting into that environment, it's going to take a player or two to have that type of game for us to have success. They have to be on their game and put up those kind of numbers.

(How important is it for the program to beat Gonzaga?)

It's not the way you just put it, which puts it in the light that we have to beat Gonzaga for our program to have an identity. That's not it at all. For this program,  in terms of my vision for the program, it's to graduate student-athletes, it's to have Beasley packed, it's to be in the running for Pac-12 championships, it's to be in postseason play. It's very similar to the vision we had at Oregon when we got the job there and it took us some time to build that program, to emulate those teams that are great in our conference and those teams that are great on your schedule. Gonzaga is one of those teams where, again, Mark Few has been there how many years? And before that he was there as an assistant. The continuity is in place, the recruiting is in place, their identity is in place, their fans are in place. They are so far ahead of us in terms of continuity of their program that we are in a situation where we need to feel comfortable with who we are. We're a ways away from that so to say it's of utmost importance to win this game right now – in the big scheme of things it's of utmost importance for this team, this year, to gain some strides in terms of who we are, our identity recruiting-wise, what type of player we're attracting here, academically we're in tremendous shape there right now, we're laying a foundation right now. That's more important to me in the big scheme of things. This is a game on our schedule that we want to be as competitive as we can be in this game and give ourselves a chance at the end to win a ballgame but it will not make or break our season or what we're trying to accomplish here.

(What sort of crowd split do you expect?)

Having just been in the situation it's hard for me to say. But I would think it would be a pro-Gonzaga crowd just because you're sitting up there in their backyard and everything where the game is being played. The good thing is, though, it's not like your typical road game where if you were down at an Arizona or a Stanford or an Oregon or even a UTEP and there's only 24-30 people there and those are mostly families and you do have a sense that there's just us in the arena versus all of that energy in those buildings, which is why we need to get Beasley to that point where they come down here and feel the same way. So, as you go into that environment up there you'll at least have the feeling that there's more Cougs up there than you normally feel at a ballgame in a typical Pac-12 road game.

(Is confidence something you can coach?)

Yes, it is, because it's no different than you raising your kids. And you have the opportunity to put your arms around them to give them confidence. And you do that with a lot of affirmations, you do that with a lot of patience and you do that with a lot of teaching. At the end of the day I think all of us that raise kids want them to be successful, and I don't care if it's in a math class, English class or playing a particular sport, when you have patience with them and you give them a lot of love and you commit to them that they can trust you, you're in this with them, you do see a lot of growth, particularly from individuals that maybe have not had that type of support, or felt that type of support  be it at home, in their lives, in their programs or whatever.

So a lot of what we do in our basketball program is to wrap our arms around these  young men and give them the opportunity that we're in this together and have them grow internally. A lot of them need to grow internally because of what they've been through in their lives, but at the end of the day the fact that they're on a Division I campus, for some of them and what they've gone through in their personal lives, are already a success and need to empty their backpacks of lack of confidence and guilt, fear, shame, whatever, and let's move forward. So, we spend a lot of time talking about that every day, to get them where they need to be mentally before we even get to the floor to practice or play a game.

(What is it that you're missing to make this an Ernie Kent team?)

Continuity. It's hard to jump into a program that's been where Washington State has been the last two or three years. You're not going to turn it overnight. Very similar to taking over at Saint Mary's, similar to taking over at Oregon. It takes continuity, we need the continuity in place of the day-to-day that these players need to understand you need to go through to be successful. The day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year. You need the recruiting in place, as well, you need the competitive nature of your teams. Scheduling, scheduling is huge in your success at this level and you can go back and look at some of the greatest coaches in this game: Mike Montgomery, Lute Olson. Look at their scheduling, look at where the games are played – particularly in preseason and things like that. There's just a lot that needs to happen and be in place before you can say, "OK. Here's Ernie Kent's program, Ernie Kent's team," and we're a ways away from that. And you have to orchestrate and get your hands involved in everything from marketing to scheduling to recruiting and ultimately what takes place on that floor. So, are we there yet? We're far from it and yet I'm very, very pleased with this group and the way they have bought in and allowed us to teach them and bring them forward in a lot of different areas in their lives.

(Do you have the facilities to win at WSU?)

Yes. And I say that because, again, I was at the ultimate school that understood the arms race when you talk about Oregon and the support of Phil and Penny Knight and everything they did for the University of Oregon. And yet, in our basketball program there we did not start out at the top. We started out at the bottom in terms of facilities, and we went to an Elite Eight with those facilities before we put the arena blueprint into works and everything. So when I look at WSU compared to where we were at Oregon, we are far ahead. We didn't have practice courts at Oregon. We didn't have the two different locker rooms at Oregon. We didn’t have our own personal strength coach that went with us everywhere at Oregon. We didn’t have a lot of that stuff when we built that program from the ground up, initially. So when I look at the arms race and when I look at facilities, are we behind the other schools in the conference and the country? In some areas, yes, and in some areas, no. Do we have adequate facilities here, support here, to get it done here? You bet we do. So, the facilities, the financial support, the support of the administration, none of that will hamper what we need to get done here because it's really good. All we need to do here is make sure we teach and teach, and teach again. Obviously we need to recruit, but in laying this foundation and building this program, it's about accountability, it's about confidence, it's about being positive and it's about recruiting. And right now with the players that are in this program, if I can get them – and this is the tricky part, because they need to play at such a high level game-in and game-out, and that's hard for young people to do that – but if you can do that they can have success this year, and that's what we're pushing and striving for.

(Does the success that UTEP, TCU and Santa Barbara have had encourage you?)
It's never fun to get beat. I think if we had not gotten beat so bad at TCU – No. 1, because that was a tough game to play and it caught us on the second game of a long road trip. The Santa Barbara one we knocked ourselves out of whack with what went on and having to sit some guys and the game got away from us and we're out of rhythm and everything, so I knew that those teams are good basketball  teams.

I read where someone talked about TCU, a team that was 0-and-whatever in their conference last year. That means nothing. I mean, media doesn’t understand what transforms in a program over the summer and recruiting and players coming back. I knew Trent had a great basketball team there, I knew it. And all you do is look at the film and the personnel. They're big, they're physical, they can score, they can defend, and look at their team. I knew Tim Floyd had a great team sitting there as well so the fact that we went down and battled and handled ourselves well at UTEP, that was a good sign, because we found out how we wanted to play. And the fact that we handled ourselves in Alaska, going through all that adversity, that was a really good sign. And then the fact that you bounce back and play a game like you played – even though you let the Idaho game get away – that was a good sign, too.

Now the consistency needs to take place in the program so this game will be another measuring point that you can come back from. And all of this in our preseason is getting us ready for conference play. There are other teams in this conference that are just logging victories right now because they know they're going to be good. We have to get ready for conference play, they're already ready for conference play. In essence, if you can handle the schedule and it doesn't devastate you, now all of a sudden it works in your favor when conference hits because you have toughened yourself mentally and physically, you have strengthened your weaknesses, you have found an identity as to how to play and you can go into conference with a lot more confidence, even though you open up on the road again in conference play with three straight games.

Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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