Washington State's most improved player is Josh Hawkinson and it's not up for discussion. The sophomore forward has made one of the biggest jumps of any player nationally scoring 14.2 more points per game and hauling in 9.4 more rebounds per game than he did last season.
But three weeks into conference play it's starting to look like WSU's second-most improved player is Shadle Park graduate Brett Boese.
While Hawkinson has been arguably WSU's best player since the start of the season, Boese's improvement has been more recent. After averaging 15.5 minutes during WSU's nonconference games, he's seen his average spike to 27 per game in WSU's five Pac-12 games.
He's been easily the team's most dangerous 3-point shooter, hitting 43 percent of his perimeter shots, which makes him an especially valuable player on a team that has no other players shooting better than 36 percent from behind the arc.
Boese has played at least 30 minutes in each of WSU's last three games, playing a career-high 34 in Saturday's loss to Oregon State. Coach Ernie Kent says that's probably too many and that he would like to keep Boese around 20-25 minutes per game.
Still those would be borderline starter's minutes. An average of 22.5 minutes per game would be No. 5 on the team, right behind Ike Iroegbu's 25.7 minutes per game.
But Kent says he has no plans to insert Boese into the starting lineup, which typically consists of Iroegbu, Hawkinson, Ny Redding, DaVonté Lacy and Jordan Railey.
Instead, he prefers to keep the matchup versatility he gets by having Boese come off the bench to be used wherever the Cougars are showing a weakness. If the game dictates that Kent employ a small lineup, the 6-foot-7 Boese is able to come in as a stretch forward.
Should WSU decide to go with a tall lineup to rebound better or something, Boese can sub in as a wing.
Given the amount of shuffling Kent has done with his lineups this season, it's easy to see why he likes having a wild card.
"What's really cool about this system is coach Kent's really adaptive to what he has," Boese said. "I think he adjusts to who is playing well and who's on the floor so I don’t' think he has set positions guys have to fit into."
Boese has improved enough on offense to be a reliable spot-up shooter and in games against OSU and Washington he provided some early scoring when the rest of the Cougars offense was inert.
But the reason Kent is starting to play him so many minutes is because of what he's giving the Cougars on defense and that's where his versatility is most apparent. He's defended 6-foot-3 guards and 250 posts, most notably UW's Shawn Kemp Jr.
Kemp Jr. did shoot 6 of 9 in that game but wasn't able to get as many shots up in the post as UW probably would have liked against a smaller lineup. WSU's good post defense against the taller Huskies forced the UW offense to the perimeter, where the Huskies made just 4 of 19 3-pointers.
Kent talked about Boese's role and more during his weekly media availability on Monday. The transcription of his remarks is below.
WSU men's basketball coach Ernie Kent
Question: Will Trevor Dunbar see more time because of his effectiveness on Saturday?
Ernie Kent: In talking about the last game – we had an intense game with Washington, it was like an NCAA tournament game. And then you've got to go through all they hype, we talk about the students coming back, starting classes again and then we have an even more intense game against Oregon.
Consequently, we didn't have great legs against Oregon State and it cost us a ballgame. They played extremely well; we didn't have our energy. Trevor was the one guy that had fresh legs because he hadn't played a lot. So he gave us an opportunity to kind of get moving, try to change the game and everything.
His time will really be dictated upon how Ny (Redding) plays and how Ike (Iroegbu) plays, because they're ahead of him. More consistent, they've done more, they've produced more, they've given us more confidence in them as we get confidence back. So hopefully when he gets a chance to shine in practice, hopefully when he gets an opportunity in a game he will continue to grow because he could help us as long as he's on his A-game and it's taken him some time to make the adjustment from high school to this level, understanding everything that goes on at this level on the floor, off the floor.
Which is OK, because he's just a freshman and my whole thing with freshmen, come at your own pace as long as you come and he's starting to come on right now and that's a good thing.
Q: Is that also the case for Aaron Cheatum and Jackie Davis?
EK: They're out of the rotation. You're not going to play 13 guys – we play nine deep, maybe that tenth guy gets a few minutes. If you look at where they're at, let's talk about Trevor. Is he playing better than Ny, is he playing better than Ike? No. So he doesn't play ahead of them unless circumstances dictate – foul trouble, the fatigue factor, trying to change the game with more quickness on the floor and so forth.
Jackie is in a tough spot because he's got to outplay Brett (Boese), DaVonte (Lacy), Ike, Que (Johnson), Dex (Dexter Kernich-Drew) and he's just not doing that so it's hard for him to get minutes.
In Cheatum's case you're talking about Junior (Longrus) and Josh (Hawkinson). He's at Josh Hawkinson's position and Josh – we can't get him off the floor because he's playing so well so unfortunately they're just out of the rotation right now.
Q: What have you seen out of Utah?
EK: They are an excellent, excellent basketball team. They deserve their ranking. They ran into a little bit of a buzz saw with Arizona and that crowd and emotion in Arizona coming off a loss and those types of things. I think for us, it's going to be a very tough opponent going in there to play.
(Coach) Larry (Krystkowiak)'s done a great job with that team. I've watched that team grow up starting when they were freshmen, doing FOX TV and then on the Pac-12 Networks so I know all their personnel extremely well and they're all playing really, really well.
So, they're coming off a loss, they need to get going again. It's going to be an incredible college basketball environment. We're going to have to really be on our game similar to the Washington game, Oregon game, that type of performance to go in there and have any kind of chance of winning that ball game.
Q: If Boese continues to play around 30 minutes do you see him becoming a starter?
EK: No. He's perfect for where he's at. 30 minutes is probably too much for him and he's playing 30 minutes maybe because Que or Dex weren't on their games so you want more of Brett. But as those guys get better they will decrease (Boese)'s minutes, as they get more consistent they will decrease Brett's minutes.
That's too many minutes. He needs to be somewhere between 20-25 minutes. He can really be effective that way.
Q: Do you like to have a player that can play on the wing or in the post come off the bench?
EK: Yep. With the way we play in our system and everything the more versatile you are the more minutes you can get, the more you can play and that's why he is playing a lot. The same way with Dex. If Dex would accept and really get comfortable and confident playing the perimeter and then coming in and playing a big guy when we go small, it's great.
Brett has the ability to do that, it doesn't bother him at all. He guarded (Shawn) Kemp (Jr.) one game, he got out on the perimeter and he can guard out there. He's a guy that has enough versatility in his game that you can move him around.
We can't run a lot of offense when he goes inside but that's OK because we spread the floor and play what I call "small ball" and use his ability to shoot and stretch the floor.
Q: Is Delon Wright a threat to have a very high-scoring game against you the way Joseph Young, Nigel Williams-Goss or Corey Hawkins did?
EK: Delon Wright has the ability to affect the game more than those guards because he can affect it at both ends of the floor. Probably the closest guy to him is Young because Young can disrupt you at the defensive end of the floor and get steals. But Delon Wright – most great players and I'm talking college and NBA, they have the ability to anticipate the game at the offensive end of the floor. They can see the play before the play happens. The great ones can do it at both ends. Michael Jordan, Lebron, Kobe and I'm not saying he's those guys, but he has that ability to anticipate at both ends of the floor so he can change the game or dominate the game on the defensive end – steals, blocks – as well as can on the offensive end – drives, scoring, dishing the ball. So it becomes a matchup nightmare because he's so good at both ends of the floor he can disrupt you and you've got to be able to weather that throughout the course of the game.
Q: How rare is it to find a 7-foot freshman as skilled as Utah's Jakob Poeltl?
EK: Very, very, very rare but the fact that he came from (Austria) – realize European basketball is different from high school basketball or AAU basketball because they could already be out playing against men. And playing in the leagues over there, they've got pro players. You could be actively going to third world countries and playing tough competitions under tough, adverse conditions so when they come here most of them come here smiling. Because they've played at such a higher level of basketball you really can't call them freshmen, even though they are age-wise but they're very mature players. They've got a gem in him. He's going to be a very good basketball player.
Q: You and your staff have overseas experience. Is there a particular assistant that handles international recruiting?
EK: Not necessarily an international guy but we have ties in a lot of places throughout the United States and overseas and we're looking at players abroad right now, particularly big guys because they're hard to find in the states right now. There is not an overabundance of 6-foot-11, 7-footers that are really skilled walking around.
So you do need to use every avenue possible and one of the things we want to do here is expand our recruiting base and if we can continue to put together the year that we're having right now to where people can see that style of play, they can see the energy – that's why it's so important to get people in Beasley. You can't build a program and then bring the fans because part of building a program is for recruits to see the fans and feel your success and see it even if your record might say it. So it's great to have these great games with all that energy in there from those students because that's great for us in terms of recruiting.
Q: How did playing good teams on the road earlier in the season prepare you for this trip?
EK: I think any time on the road, the thing that I've found in the past, I love taking teams on the road because not only do we compete but we fellowship on the road. Just the men are out there – and a couple of women come with us – but when we're out there on the road together it gives us a chance to really get culture and really get a sense of we're in this together. Because now you've eliminated a lot of distractions that you would have on your college campus of being a college student and everything.
The Washington game, as intense as the game was, just like Cal, those were possession-by-possession games. You had to really be alert because the momentum of the game could get away from you in those environments with the students and the fans. Once you have gone through that, weathered it, and had success in it, you have growth in your basketball team. Mental toughness, physical toughness, you understand what it takes.
The key to being successful here, when you talk about the teams like Butler where you call them mid-majors but they're not. They have that strong mental toughness because they're juniors and they're seniors. Not only does it help us for when we go back out on the road but it helps you for your future, also, because there are a lot of sophomores and juniors in this program.
The fact that we closed out the Oregon game with DaVonte on the bench, had banged knees and everything, didn't come back into the game, you're closing out the game with sophomores and juniors, the future of your program. That's huge because of understanding what it takes mentally to get it done.
So I'm hoping that when we go back out there for these two games and everything, we go back out with a lot of confidence because we're going to need it in the environments we're going into. Two of the top three best college basketball environments: Utah, Colorado, is where we're going to go play right now.
Q: What have you focused on in practice this week?
EK: Actually the OSU game, and we try to get through the game by easing up on their legs and giving them an opportunity to bounce back and we still didn't have enough time. If we had one more day it would have been great for us but unfortunately we didn't.
So for us right now it's about cold pools, rehab, rest, managing their energy level and everything. With it being Dr. King's birthday, we're going to take the team and go on a team bond and see the movie Selma today and that's how we're going to get ready to play that game.
It's important for us to do that together, it's important for them to understand why this day is so important. So we're going to step away from basketball for a minute, we'll do a little bit in the weight room but we need to get our energy back. We need to get more of our passion and commitment to each other. This will really help this team out as we leave tomorrow morning and go on the road.
We'll practice, we'll be ready to go on Wednesday. We need a day for them to get ready with walk-throughs and everything.
Q: Style of play dictated that Jordan Railey didn't play much last week. Has he been able to maintain his level of play in practice?
EK: He really has been and in fairness to him he probably should have played more in the last two games, even though the games were fast and up-tempo. He started the Oregon game pretty good and then that game got crazy fast and he got kind of lost in the shuffle because their athletes were good enough to run, their athletes were good enough to put it down and really play quick. They're like guards. It almost became a skilled-guard game even though Josh is 6'9 and a couple of their players in that 6'7, 6'8 range.
Oregon State, we all, we, all of us were a little beat up, a little fatigued in the game and nobody really got a lot done with the exception of Brett probably was pretty consistent and Trevor Dunbar and his performance. (Railey) could have played more in the Oregon State game but I felt like I had a whole team that was really out of wack, out of rhythm.
I've been in those situations before. You try to get them going, sub them in and out, get some energy out of them. We didn’t have a lot of energy in the game when it was all said and done. We're going to need him in both of these games because both of these teams have excellent inside games and he needs to give us some productivity. And I feel confident that he will do that.