Ernie Kent's Cougars faced a tough start to the conference season with their first three Pac-12 games on the road.
After last weekend's split in the Bay Area the Cougars have a chance to emerge only lightly-scathed by that tough opening stretch. But first they have a rubber match against their rivals in Seattle.
On Tuesday Ernie Kent talked about his team's improvement, how much better it can get and what it needs to do to beat the Huskies.
Question: What player benefits the most from Jordan Railey's improvement?
Ernie Kent: I would say the perimeter game, because any time you can go inside and get points it frees up teams from locking in on your guards. You'll find teams where you have a non-scoring big guy and they'll just play behind him and dare you to throw the ball into him, then they will sit on your guards. It doesn't give them a lot of freedom of movement to get open, so when you can go inside and get points and go back out to get points, have an inside-outside game, put a shooter opposite the post, it frees up a lot of things for you offensively.
Q: Is that why when one player plays better, everyone plays better?
EK: I don't know if it's the winning is contagious, one player thing. I think it's more about a team chemistry, a team finding itself, team confidence, I think all of those things. A team understanding its system better now, you're starting to see a team realizing that if you can execute game plans and you can prepare they have an opportunity to have some success. And then, anytime you have some success I just think it catapults you to another level of believing in yourself and believing in a system. Early on this team struggled because it got beaten up a little bit with out schedule, not realizing that tough schedule was getting hem ready for Pac-12 play.
Now we've had some success, winning three of our last four games, you can get a team to start to believe in itself, start to feel good about itself, I think that's the thing that's contagious about guys actually getting on their games, because all of these guys have a game now.
Q: Did you talk to your team about winning its first conference road game in two years?
EK: I don't know how much we mentioned it going into the game. I know we did mention it, though, in one of our prep sessions about the next hurdle and one of several hurdles of this program was to get that monkey off our back of not being able to win on the road in conference play.
To be able to do that wasn't as smooth as we'd like it in the last two minutes, we were excellent up until then, but this program had never been in that situation where they were the hunted in a game coming down the stretch, last minute or so of a game. It's almost as if they needed the adversity of the game, to win the game, to grow through the game and they were able to do that and that ended up being a good thing even though that's an area we need to get better at because we're going to have a lot of games, if we're going to have the success I think we're going to have, there are going to be a lot of games like that that come down to the last minute of the game.
Q: Could Jordan Railey have made a big shot like that a year ago?
EK: I don't think it would have happened three weeks ago. His growth is continuing, his growth is contagious in terms of guys having confidence in him. But I thought a couple things happened in the game because I thought we just let the game take shape and flow. Not only did he want the ball but they gave him the ball and he did something with the ball. All of those are huge growing opportunities for a team like us that is still trying to find ourselves and I thought it was a special moment for him to hit that shot because that gives him the opportunity to have even more confidence in himself.
Q: How do you keep Railey's confidence up going against a defender like Washington's Robert Upshaw?
EK: Well first of all, I hope you feel better, glad you're not here getting me sick. Secondly, we have a player in our program, Valentine Izundu, and he's not as big as Upshaw, he's not physically as tall but we think he has an opportunity to be one of the best shot blockers in the country next year because he's 6-foot-11, he has over a 7-foot wingspan, he's a tremendous athlete that tries to go get everything and he's had some incredible plays in practice so that's been a blessing right now because we've got a guy that throws a lot of shots out of there in practice.
It's surprising when you see a center the caliber of Upshaw sitting in there so that part of it is a good thing for us, although sometimes when you get in the heat of the battle people don't realize how good he is. Because he is a very good center, not only does he block shots, he keeps them in play and he can score. I think he has an enormous amount of confidence in his game. So the biggest thing is playing with confidence and realize that, particularly guards, you've got to be careful going in there and thinking you're going to attack that kind of size. I'm not as concerned with big-on-big because we've done that before.
Q: Does he bite on pump fakes or is he pretty good at staying on the floor?
EK: You know I think he's been around long enough, he understands the game well enough that it's not about trying to get bigs in foul trouble. Without sitting here and giving away game plans and things of that nature I think he's a smart game plan that knows how to handle himself.
Q: Is Nigel Williams-Goss the guy you have to stop to stop their offense?
EK: Once again, not wanting to give away what we need to do and what we have to do, I'll put it in this context that he is an outstanding context that loves to push the pace. It should be a very fast basketball game because they want to get up and down but it's not Upshaw, it's not Nigel, it's an entire basketball team that we have to scheme against because it's a different environment going over there to play. They've lost three out of four, I know they don't want to start the conference 0-3 so they'll be jacked up ready to go. They will be focused, they'll be locked-in, those are more of the concerns for us than one particular guy on the floor, just how we handle ourselves in a game of this magnitude.
Q: What's it like coaching against Lorenzo Romar?
EK: Well I haven't had a team against him in four years so it's kind of hard to say because I think I'm different as a coach, having stepped out of it for four years and coming back into it, and I think in Lo's case he's a very good friend just like Johnny Dawkins is a good friend, just like Cuonzo Martin is a good friend, Sean Miller, I have several guys in this conference where, being on the NABC board, you know them very well.
The thing that I can tell you about Lorenzo, I think any time you have success in a program where you have built it and people start to get used to that success, that there comes a point in time where they stop celebrating you and start tolerating you. I hope they never get to that point over there because he's one of the best basketball people in this game and what I mean by that is, not only does he coach the game but he cares about his kids, he's an ambassador of the game, he handles himself extremely well and you throw all those ingredients together you've just got an outstanding basketball coach over there. That's the thing that I remember about him, that's the thing that I see when I stepped away from coaching: he's on the board of directors with me and we try to shape, help shape college basketball. You can see that he's somebody that cares about kids, cares about the game just like I do.
Q: What have you seen lately from Brett Boese?
EK: I think the biggest thing for Brett is the fact that he's really calmed down and accepted his role. What I mean by calmed down is I think he's a player that's played at times with nervous energy and he has been Mr. Consistency in terms of knowing what he needs to do to get on the floor and stay on the floor.
How he can help this team, and he's not the fastest player, he's not the best athlete, but if you break him down and watch what he does: he runs as hard as he can every single time, he defends as hard as he can every single time and he's a guy that can make baskets for you. For everything that we would want out of him, he's been giving us, and for that I'm very proud of him. And the fact that his confidence has come he's playing at a different level than he was when we first came in the door here.
Q: How can you keep the momentum that you have right now?
EK: I think it's just one game. We want to play well obviously but the winning gets you over the hump and as a coach, the thing that we focus in on is just het accountability, the detail of practice. Everybody playing hard and just going to take care of their bodies and putting in their time.
It still comes down to playing games and this is a team, again, that had a tough go of it in the preseason with their schedule that we tried to manage the best that we could, open up three games on the road in conference play and that's never easy and here's the third of three straight. WE played well at Stanford for half a game, we played well at Cal for an entire game and the focus for us right now is just making sure we handle ourselves and play well for 40 minutes. If we can do that we'll have a chance.
Q: Could you recount the benefits of the Oakland haircuts?
EK: You know when we left Pullman it was on break and our normal barbershop that several of these guys go to, they changed location and they took the time that school was out to relocate and in doing that they shut down for a few days. I felt like some of the haircuts got a little out of hand a little bit.
We had an off day and it was highly recommended that some guys needed to get their haircuts. Junior Longrus is from down in the Bay Area and has a barber that actually came by to cut his hair and a couple of the others. A few of the other guys and I ventured out into one of my old areas where I used to get my hair cut when I was down at Saint Mary's and got our haircuts. Just the opportunity again to step away from a practice environment, a hotel environment, build a fellowship with your team because in our culture going into a black barbershop is a big deal. I thought it was neat to experience and see those guys and we had a lot of fun doing it and I thought that it looked fantastic for the game and I tend to think if they look good, they'll play good.
Q: Do you have a barbershop lined up for Seattle in a few days?
EK: I'm counting on Percy (Allen) to help me out. If that's what it takes, Bud (Withers).
Q: What jumps out to you about this Washington team?
EK: I feel like they are a team that got off to a great start and when you start to win, you're undefeated, you get ranked, all of a sudden now expectations come up and you're in a different level of pressure because of those expectations. They are an excellent basketball team that has just stumbled a bit and you need to find your rhythm again. But sometimes it's hard to maintain and play at that level all the time, of an Arizona, of a Utah, just those veteran teams that everybody has to play and hold themselves accountable to play at a certain level and that's hard to do.
Particularly when you talk about in and around school being out, breaks and Christmas break, guys are going home and looking forward to going home, there are a lot of factors that go into keeping young people as focused as they need to be. That's a pretty delicate balance. I think they're a very, very good basketball team. They have all the ingredients that they need to be successful this year.
Q: How do some teams improve throughout the season more than other teams?
EK: I'll speak to my team and I think nine months ago, getting this job, when you looked at the team they were really struggling with their confidence and their identity as a basketball team and everything. And we spent an enormous amount of time on the floor working on that confidence, helping them find out who they were to get that confidence back and then putting in a system. So our program, I felt like we had enormous growth potential from where we were. Now, granted, we were behind everybody else so we had more growth potential to catch up to everybody else.
Now I always use the term with our team, we went from the bottom ot the manhole cover. Now we've got to get to the top of the skyscraper. That's where Arizona sits. So we're still building and moving but our growth potential is there. You may have players in other programs that coming back their senior years aren't going to get any better as seniors. They're already there. They're big, they're strong, they've got it. There is not a lot of growth potential in them, where Jordan Railey had a lot of growth potential in him. Josh Hawkinson had an enormous amount of growth potential in him. DaVonte Lacy, maybe not as much, because he's already on his game. Ike Iroegbu, growth potential. Ny Redding, growth potential. There is so much of it there, untapped growth potential, that we needed to tap that, free them up, start to get them better, let them get their confidence and we still have more. If you look at our team, Que Johnson has yet to get on his A-game, Dexter Kernich-Drew has yet to get on his A-game, so we still have growth potential. Brett Boese is probably playing about as well as he can play. I think Jordan is getting there. Josh Hawkinson, I mean he's one of the best power forwards in the country I don't know how much more you can get out of him. So I look at it that way. Trevor Dunbar still has growth potential. So we just focus on growing them individually within their individual workouts and skill set and things they need to work on and then growing them in understanding the system and how much faster we want to play, and sharing the ball, and then growing them into competing in this conference. Some of those guys have never competed in this conference with the amount of minutes they're getting right now and how to handle themselves. The more they learn with us, the better we're getting. I don't know if other programs in the conference have the potential. Utah, they're pretty doggone good already. Colorado, they're pretty doggone good already. Arizona, they're pretty doggone good already. We have a huge ceiling we can grow in and that's what we focus on.