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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Ernie Kent’s Coug Book of 2015-16 features plot twists

PULLMAN – Back in the fall when he was staring at a blank screen with the story of a season yet to be written, Ernie Kent wasn’t going to let anybody write it for him.

Didn’t stop them. They picked Washington State to finish last in the Pac-12 basketball derby anyway.

“If we’re the last-place team,” he said at the time, “this conference is going to be a really, really good conference.”

And he’s on the money. It is a really, really good conference.

The Cougars are also last, at least at the moment. As consolation goes, being right can be drastically overrated.

What may hurt even more than their geography in the standings is the realization that they have pretty much arrived there at their own hand – something evident again Saturday at Friel Court when they doinked 11 free throws in a 75-70 loss to Colorado in which they had a shot, albeit a well-challenged one, at a game-tying 3 in the final 5 seconds.

“We have had this conversation before,” Kent sighed.

Sure have.

Two weeks ago, the Cougars were afloat on the giddy cloud of knocking off then-No. 25 UCLA at Friel, suggesting a season of possibility, if not the unlimited kind. Then they dug in and played a terrific game against rival Washington, only to let it get away in overtime – missing 14 foul shots in the process. That was the nudge into this current five-game losing streak, during which the Cougars have looked very much like a last-place team at times, and then not.

It can be hard to get a read.

That was true even in the microcosm of Saturday’s game, in which the Cougs –OK, Ike Iroegbu – came out flying, then went into a seven-minute funk, then … rinse, repeat.

This might be blamed on youth, except the Cougars really aren’t that young, or even that new in the eight-man rotation they used Saturday. But hey, this sort of thing can happen to older teams, too, and often disastrously so as we’ve seen up close this season.

The argument is whether this year’s Cougars are better than Kent’s first offering and that’s likely, even if they don’t get close to the seven Pac-12 victories that team cobbled together. They shoot it better and, as they showed Saturday, have the ability to defend better – Colorado shot just 39 percent – although, no, the weekend proved that’s not a constant.

In fact, Kent threw around the word “soft” after the Cougars were routed by Utah – just about the worst sporting pejorative imaginable, though the football coach has been known to phrase it in more colorful ways.

He battled this with a new starting lineup – older hands Brett Boese and Ny Redding being more vocal, communicative leaders – and, when the Buffs creeped out to a double-digit lead, a zone.

A zone? For toughness?

“Understand that when I say toughness, toughness is not a physical thing all the time, where you have to physically manhandle someone and push,” Kent said. “Toughness becomes a mental thing to know your job and then have the physical capability to do your job. When you get fatigued, you don’t cave in mentally and don’t cave in physically. Know your job, do your job.

“We didn’t manhandle Colorado. We just did our assignments. When it was time to block out, we blocked out. When it was time to run, we ran. When it was time to score inside, we scored inside. When it was time to front the post, we fronted the post. We did what we were supposed to do.”

Except make free throws, which can be about mental toughness, too.

Nonetheless, the Cougars crawled back to lead briefly – by a point – with 11 minutes to play. Then they came up empty in six straight possessions and let the Buffs get away, though Iroegbu went wild again at the end to make it interesting.

Just doing so may be a reach beyond these Cougars’ grasp.

Surely you know all about the Pac-12’s bona fides. Duke, Texas A&M, Baylor and Kentucky all among the victims. Second behind the Big Ten in conference RPI, with 11 teams among the first 75. That would be the Cougs marooned back there at 162nd.

Just seeing Iroegbu driving down Broadway at the likes of Colorado’s Josh Scott without an ounce of fear is enough to make you open to the notion that Kent has something here, if not now.

Still, the Cougs cannot gnaw on the bone of the UCLA win for another six weeks.

“Missing opportunities? Yes,” Kent acknowledged. “But … if you look at what we’re doing here as a book, we’re in chapter two. We’ve got a few more chapters left in this book.”

And for the time being, the footnotes can be interesting reading.

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