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Josh Hawkinson’s return a positive step for WSU team that has a lot of work to do

Washington State forward Josh Hawkinson, left, and Colorado guard Josh Fortune battle for a rebound during the first half of the first-round Pac-12 game on Wednesday. The Cougars lost the game, but got good news with the announcement that Hawkinson will return for his senior season. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Washington State forward Josh Hawkinson, left, and Colorado guard Josh Fortune battle for a rebound during the first half of the first-round Pac-12 game on Wednesday. The Cougars lost the game, but got good news with the announcement that Hawkinson will return for his senior season. (John Locher / Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS – Despite an uncompetitive loss that capped a season full of them, Washington State’s brief appearance at the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament was a wild success for the Cougars.

Josh Hawkinson made it official. He plans to return to WSU for his senior season.

Make no mistake, Hawkinson, who tied his own school record for double-doubles (20) this season, has options. There are plenty of NCAA tournament-caliber teams who would love to add a player who can average 11 rebounds per game in the Pac-12 and step outside and hit the 3-pointer. He is a big man who has shown time and time again he does not need an all-star cast around him to be productive.

Hawkinson, if he’s taken enough summer classes or extra credits, could take advantage of the graduate transfer rule utilized by Russell Wilson, Arizona’s Mark Tollefson, Eastern’s Vernon Adams and so, so many others.

Surely such a player could be a key cog on a number of teams looking to make deep March Madness runs next year. Think Mark Few and Gonzaga would not take Hawkinson, particularly if Domantas Sabonis decides he’s ready for the NBA?

But Hawkinson, still reeling by his locker after WSU’s 17th loss, expressed little interest in taking the road more and more frequently traveled by star upperclassmen.

“I think some people might take the easy way out and want to leave, or think we’ll be a bad team since we only won one (Pac-12) game this year,” Hawkinson said. “For me, I’m personally going to stick it out and turn things around.”

The task of making Hawkinson’s decision a good one now falls on coach Ernie Kent and the rest of WSU’s players. Truthfully, to make an NCAA tournament run one season after finishing with a 9-22 record (1-17 against conference opponents), a couple players are going to need to make Hawkinsonian leaps, developing skills at the rate the Shoreline forward did when he was named the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player as a sophomore.

Que Johnson has to become a consistent third scoring-option. Ike Iroegbu has to sustain his newfound outside shooting, finishing and passing skills displayed this year for an entire season. Conor Clifford and Valentine Izundu both have to become more coordinated, and Charles Callison has to translate his ample athleticism into better play on both ends of the floor.

Mostly, though, this group that loses only two seniors off this team, neither of them starters, needs to come together in the offseason.

“I know we’re going to get better individually, but individuals don’t win games. It’s about the team. So, getting our continuity, getting more continuity with the team,” Iroegbu said. “Since we have seven new guys, the merging together sometimes takes time.”

By playing together more this offseason, perhaps some sorting will take place and the Cougars can establish a hierarchy. The Cougars used 14 different starting lineups this season, giving the players ample exposure to playing with different teammates, but perhaps making it difficult for any unit to gel.

“I think we need to be more cohesive and I just feel like there were like 15 different lineups,” Hawkinson said. “It took until the end of the season to find a group of guys that really played hard together at the same time.”

Of course, there is always the opportunity to add talent. Last season three players who were not significant contributors were encouraged to find new programs, and it is reasonable to think there could be further attrition this offseason. Kent said he does not plan to make any changes to his coaching staff.

Kent said “I don’t have those answers yet” when asked about the possibility of players leaving, either voluntarily or otherwise. Either way, the Cougars will have two new players next season.

Maybe Milan Acquaah will prove to be so talented that the Cougars become immediately more competitive thanks to his presence. Or forward Jeff Pollard, who spent the last year getting extra seasoning at a prep school in Las Vegas will prove as impactful as the one-and-dones recruited by other schools.

Mostly, though, Kent expects the growth of first-year players such as Derrien King, Robert Franks and the other newcomers he’s brought into his program, along with the continued development of key upperclassmen like Hawkinson, to yield a healthier program going forward.

“As I look at this year again, we might need to tweak it. Personnel, we might to tweak. With our scheduling, we might need to tweak. What we’re doing offensively,” Kent said.

“You just keep looking, tinkering until you get it right and get it where it needs to be. So the season is hard on that team, it’s hard on all of us, it’s hard on the fans, it’s hard on the students. But to get the program to where you need to get to, sometimes you have to take a step backward to go forward and unfortunately that’s what happened with this team this year.”

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