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Ernie Kent’s mission: Instilling confidence, developing chemistry in youthful Cougars

Coach Ernie Kent figures his second team at Washington State, although young, is more athletic and better skilled than his first. (Associated Press)
Coach Ernie Kent figures his second team at Washington State, although young, is more athletic and better skilled than his first. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Although Ernie Kent may have long ago mastered the sartorial flair and oratorical tricks of a politician, his skill for diminishing expectations will need a lot of sharpening should the Washington State men’s basketball coach ever seek elected office.

Kent is not a coach who wants his team to glide under the consciousness of the casual observer until sometime in the middle of the season, after it has proven itself, and sports writers and fans realize that hey, this team is pretty good.

Rather he insists, loudly and repeatedly, that his team is a collection of big, fast, skilled winners and tasks his players with backing up his words. Whether the Cougars are actually a reflection of their coach’s claims seems to be almost immaterial to Kent. The mission is to make them believe they are.

“It’s all about confidence right now because we have the size, the depth, the talent,” Kent said. “It’s about the confidence, chemistry and getting on a rhythm right now.”

The praise Kent heaped upon his second WSU team during Monday’s Media Day was effusive – he called the trio of Connor Clifford, Josh Hawkinson and Valentine Izundu “the best crop of big guys that I have ever coached.” At times, it was possibly hyperbolic, like when he claimed that Izundu can get a hand two feet above the rim off a standing jump.

With six newcomers, plus Izundu, who redshirted last year, not much is known about the Cougars. But Kent paints a vivid picture of a group that can make hay in a conference lacking in unassailable teams.

Kent says despite the graduations of DaVonté Lacy and Dexter Kernich-Drew, the Cougars will shoot better from outside this year. And he thinks other teams will shoot worse.

Valentine is an athlete who dunks and blocks shots. “He’s going to cause some problems,” Kent said. Clifford is a mobile big who can score with either hand and will also “cause some problems.”

Junior college transfer Charles Callison is a bulldog defender at point guard, says Kent, who can run the offense.

“I thought we were flat-out horrible defensively last year,” Kent said. “I can already tell that this will be a much better defensive team because of athleticism; our toughness is different, our depth is different, the competition is different.

“You’re going to have to guard in practice, and to get on the floor, you’re going to have to defend.”

Many of the WSU players at Media Day remarked that the team is playing faster in Kent’s second year as head coach. While the Cougars have an atypically high number of first-year players, there are still only half as many working with Kent for the first time as last season.

“Since we have a year under our belts we know what the system is supposed to look like,” Ike Iroegbu said. “Last year, coach would show us tapes of his Oregon teams but it’s kind of hard to see it and do it. But now since we know how to do it ourselves, we can show the new guys how to do it and that has us moving faster.”

The Pac-12 returns just three of the 15 members of its all-conference first and second squads, and the teams projected to do well this season will lean on freshmen players even more than usual among elite teams in the one-and-done era.

Kent believes he has a team that can compete with the conference’s best teams during the 2015-16 season. And he wants everyone to know it.

Longrus picked

WSU senior Junior Longrus will join two others as Pac-12 representatives at an NCAA convention this weekend as part of an initiative to incorporate student-athletes into the decision-making process as the Power Five conferences seek to gain autonomy from the rest of the NCAA institutions.

The forward has been a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) since then-assistant coach Jeff Hironaka advised him to join.

At the meeting, various NCAA representatives and Pac-12 oversight committees will update the athletes on pending legislation designed to enhance the experience of being a major college athlete.

Longrus wrote an essay and gave a speech in front of his fellow athletes and was selected as the runner-up to represent the Pac-12. But UCLA football player Kene Oriojoke will be preparing for the Bruins game against Arizona State this weekend, so Longrus will fill in for him in Indianapolis.

“I just talked about how much I care about the Pac-12 and I’m excited about all the changes that are going on legislatively,” Longrus said. “I’m excited that student-athletes have not only a voice, but a vote now, and a lot of the things in the Pac-12. It wasn’t too long, maybe 10 minutes.”

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