LAS VEGAS – When the Washington State men’s basketball team’s season ended on Wednesday, it did so in the same unremarkable fashion as the ones immediately preceding it.
Most of the improvements coach Ernie Kent referred to during his postgame press conference were unquantifiable.
“When I took over this program 11 months ago, I saw a group of young men that lacked a lot of confidence,” he said after Wednesday’s season-ending loss to California, later adding, “Their record may not reflect it but they had a lot of victories this year just in terms of how much growth took place in our program.”
The Cougars again lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament and again finished with a losing record and no chance at being invited to a postseason tournament. WSU’s attendance ticked up slightly – from 2,800 a season ago to 3,190 this year – but the difference can be entirely attributed to playing Arizona at home and having two fewer sparsely-attended home games against nonconference opponents.
But WSU was undeniably improved this season and the seven conference wins – equal to the two previous seasons combined – are there to prove it. The Cougars saw multiple players make major strides in their game and so were able to attack teams and win games in different ways, rather than simply hope for a monumental performance from their best player.
Two of the team’s three most improved players this season were seniors, however, so Kent will have to coax similar improvements out of next year’s squad if the Cougars are going to maintain or build upon their recent success.
DaVonté Lacy, Dexter Kernich-Drew and Jordan Railey accounted for 47 percent of the team’s scoring in Pac-12 games and each of them was the catalyst in at least one Pac-12 win. The team will particularly need to replace the outside shooting capabilities of Kernich-Drew and Lacy, who combined to make nearly half of the team’s 3-pointers.
While sophomore Josh Hawkinson is sure to be a major factor next season, he was likely the team’s best player this year. His 20 double-doubles set a school record, and even if he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds per game next season it might not add much to WSU’s ledger.
Ike Iroegbu is a prime candidate to become one of the team’s leaders on the floor. He averaged 8.9 points per game this year but saw that number rise to 17.5 points over WSU’s last two games, and added a career-high 11 assists in WSU’s penultimate Pac-12 regular-season game against Utah.
While Iroegbu was not a dangerous outside shooter, he made 6 of 11 3-point attempts over WSU’s final four games and if he can become a perimeter threat it would greatly help the Cougars offset the loss of Lacy and Kernich-Drew.
“I’m going to do a lot of shooting this offseason, a lot of spot-up 3s, moving 3s, coming off the bounce,” said Iroegbu in the locker room after the Cal loss. “That’s one thing I’m really going to focus on is shooting off the bounce.”
For the Cougars to improve upon this season’s Pac-12 record, they will almost certainly need Que Johnson to become the player that his talent suggests he can be. While Johnson averaged only 6.1 points per game this season, he scored in double figures in nine games and scored 14 or more points four times.
He’s an athletic guard with a good shot and certainly provides Kent with an easier mold with which to craft a competitive Pac-12 starter than the ones given him by Kernich-Drew, Hawkinson and Railey.
Kent coaxed a good deal of improvement out of the players left him in his first year as the WSU head coach, and the competitiveness the Cougars showed in Pac-12 games may start to fix the attendance issues.
But WSU’s surge to near the middle of the conference standings – the Cougars lost two games in the final two weeks despite leading well into the second half – came thanks to an extraordinary amount of improvement from multiple players that had long ago seemed incapable of turning into key players.
To build on his success this season, Kent will have to get more of the same kind of improvement out of multiple players next season.
“The three seniors led us to this point and they left this program in tremendous hands with Ike, Josh and Junior Longrus is another,” Kent said. “Those are going to be three very vocal, outstanding (players) that again, are on track academically, are your hardest workers, they’re going to be the guys we call on next year and I think we have great, great leadership coming down the road.”
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