SAN FRANCISCO – The first two years of the Ernie Kent era at Washington State were a lesson in the fickle devotions of sports fans.
Coach was a popular guy in year one, when the Cougars were surprisingly competitive and played a style of basketball that was enjoyable to watch. In the second year, the Cougars struggled and the season ran away from them. When Kent tried to compensate by slowing the game down to keep games close, it took the joy out of the offense and the fan base as well.
But the one constant that has remained around the WSU basketball program the last two years is Kent’s enduring, relentless optimism. During the Pac-12’s annual Media Day season preview Kent once again set soaring expectations for his team and his players, even though the Cougars were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll by a wide margin.
When Kent first arrived in Pullman, he tried to rebuild the team’s confidence and inspire a more free-flowing style of play by giving players green lights to shoot, and coaching with pronounced positivity.
While Kent denies that he has similar motives now after the Cougars won just a single Pac-12 game last season, the high expectations he sets for his team seem to be a way of moving past last year’s 17-game losing streak.
Kent called the 2016-17 season a “really pivotal year” because the Cougars can ascend as a program with seniors like Ike Iroegbu (“an outstanding point guard”), double-double machine Josh Hawkinson (“we need Josh to hold up his numbers”), and former junior college transfers Charles Callison and Conor Clifford.
That’s a really good group that should be able to lead this team, put up numbers,” Kent said.
The test will be whether the Cougars can actually improve after losing a pair of starters in Que Johnson and Valentine Izundu, who both transferred over the summer. The theory espoused by Kent and Hawkinson at Media Day is that last year’s team was composed of oddly assembled parts.
This year, they say, the pieces fit together.
“I think Coach Kent has a lot of his guys in place who can really run his system right,” Hawkinson said. “We’ll be a lot more fast-paced, up-tempo. I think last year we had to slow the game down for Que, because he was really effective in the halfcourt. I think we can establish ourselves in that way and we finally have some true point guards on our team, which will help us out.”
Hawkinson was certainly alluding to freshman Malachi Flynn. Kent said the likely starting point guard is “along the caliber of Luke Ridnour and Aaron Brooks,” both of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school.
“He has to obviously achieve that kind of success,” Kent said. “But coming in the door, he’s every bit as good as them.”
Furthermore, Kent has said that freshman guard Milan Acquaah can have the same impact as Flynn, though Acquaah is currently injured and may redshirt this season depending on how quickly he can recover.
Flynn’s presence will allow the Cougars to play Iroegbu as a combo guard, a position where he is more comfortable, which will allow the senior to focus on scoring rather than feeding the ball into the post.
The Cougars got a chance to test their new pieces during a summer trip to Italy, in which they played professional European teams in small, sweltering gyms with no air conditioning.
“Just transitioning to see the style of play where everyone can shoot the ball, everyone can score and help us out,” Hawkinson said. “We really had to defend one through five, and everyone was a viable shooter from the outside, so that really helped us for our season.”
Kent insists the Cougars will be much better. That the current group has a higher basketball IQ, plays faster and defends better. Though few outside the WSU basketball program are predicting the Cougars will win many games this season, their coach made the most of his opportunity to saddle them with expectations.
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