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WSU Men's Basketball

After four-game absence, Washington State’s Robert Franks cleared to play against Cal

Washington State forward Robert Franks  attempts a shot as Idaho forward Jared Rodriguez  defends during the second half  Dec. 5  in Pullman. (Pete Caster / AP)

PULLMAN – Ranked last in the Pac-12 in points per game, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, Washington State’s slow-starting offense will get a major lift when it returns home to Beasley Coliseum this week.

And perhaps that’s understating things.

Robert Franks, WSU’s top scorer at 22.1 ppg, returned to practice Tuesday evening from a hip contusion injury and the senior forward has been cleared to play Thursday against California, coach Ernie Kent confirmed during his weekly news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Either the Cougars (7-9, 0-3) or Golden Bears (5-11, 0-4) will claim their first Pac-12 win and end an extended losing streak when the teams meet in Pullman (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). WSU rides a six-game skid into its Pac-12 home opener and Cal has dropped each of its last five contests. They’re the only two Pac-12 teams without a league win.

Though they haven’t played in a single-digit Pac-12 game, losing to Washington, Colorado and Utah by an average of 21 points, the Cougars may restore some optimism this week. They’re still unbeaten on the Palouse, sporting a 7-0 record at Beasley Coliseum, and they’re 7-4 when their leading scorer/rebounder is in the fold.

WSU enters Thursday’s game as a six-point betting favorite.

“With ‘Robo’ coming back to practice last night,” Kent said, “the first thing I noticed is our passing got a lot better, our scoring got a lot better and our size got a lot better on the floor and we got that calm back.”

Kent plans to bring Franks off the bench Thursday and hasn’t determined whether he’ll be placed under a minutes restriction after missing nearly a month.

“I don’t know if I’ll start him in the game, just initially,” Kent said. “Him and I are going to talk about that, so there might be some restrictions there. But I’ll just have to see how he plays during the course of the game and keep my trainer close by and in my ear during timeouts, because what you don’t want to do is have him on the floor playing too fatigued and then sets himself up for injury again.”

Nonetheless, every statistical category would suggest the more Franks, the better.

The senior from Vancouver, Washington, has missed five games this season because of injury, including each of the last four with. The Cougars are 0-5 without Franks and, not surprisingly, there’s a substantial contrast in offensive production when he plays and doesn’t play.

With Franks, WSU is scoring 84.4 ppg, but that number dips to 67.5 ppg when he’s absent. The Cougars have hit the 90-point marker in four of Franks’ 11 games, but haven’t reached 80 in a game without him.

“He’s one of the better players in our conference,” Cal coach Wyking Jones said of Franks, according to Cal Bears Maven.

Franks poured in 34 points, on 10-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc, when the Cougars and Bears met in Pullman last season.

“He gives them a guy who can score at a high, high level,” Jones said.

The Cougars haven’t eclipsed 70 points through three Pac-12 games and are averaging a conference-low 65.9 ppg coming into their two-game home swing against the Bay Area schools. WSU is also the only Pac-12 team shooting lower than 40 percent from the field (39.2) and 30 percent from 3-point range (26.1).

Franks promises to make a difference for the Cougars, but a team that also ranks last in scoring defense (88.3) and field-goal percentage defense (55.4) needs across-the-board improvement if it wants to change its Pac-12 fortunes.

“We certainly have missed him,” Kent said. “Is he going to be the answer to all sudden things that snap around? He’s going to be a big part of it, but we’ve still got to get better at rebounding the ball, we have to get better at shot selection, because I think with him being away more guys have tried to things – shoot the ball more – that have allowed us to take some bad shots.”

The Pac-12’s reigning Most Improved Player hasn’t appeared in enough games to qualify, but Franks’ 22.1 ppg would rank 17th nationally and No. 1 in the conference. His 7.9 rebounds are also sixth among Pac-12 players.