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John Blanchette: After split with Ernie Kent, red flags still surround men’s hoops job at Washington State

UPDATED: Thu., March 14, 2019, 11:21 p.m.

Pat Chun with the wicked crossover!

Say, maybe Washington State’s athletic director has some basketball eligibility remaining.

Oh, wait. Talent isn’t the problem with the Cougars. Forgot about that.

Chun even doubled down on that sentiment in announcing the kiss-off to Ernie Kent on Thursday, noting in his terse statement issued through the school that, “I am optimistic that our returning student-athletes give us an immediate opportunity to move our program in a positive trajectory.”

Consider that red flag No. 1 for any prospective replacement for Kent as Wazzu’s next basketball coach:

The AD seems to think you can win with the guys coming back.

Surely that can’t be the case, can it? Surely he’s simply doing the good-guy thing and showing support for those wearing the Cougar uniform, just as he did at midseason when he declared, “The talent is there.”

And that was before the mirage in the desert, when the Cougs swept Arizona State and Arizona – the supposed “See there?” moment. Because, you know, it’s two weekends in February that are the true measure of a program, and the rest of the season – when Kent’s Cougars were losing to Seattle and Santa Clara and getting flattened by 48 at Stanford – that’s the aberration.

In any event, Chun did eventually concede in an interview with The Spokesman-Review that, “We’ve got to get going and Ernie knows that and we’ll see where we’re at, at the end of the year.”

Which was where they’ve been at the end of every year under Kent, if not worse.

Still, if Chun’s by-the-book support wasn’t enough to think Kent would survive, then the three years and $4.2 million remaining on his contract was – this with the athletic department’s rolling deficit making like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock on the city bus.

But Chun crossed up that conventional thinking.

Not that there was a choice other than firing Kent, unless you consider surrender an option.

Besides, when it comes to college athletics, suspend anything you think you know about budgetary common sense. As regards Wazzu athletics, deficit management is just a matter of moving a big number back and forth among university departments at the end of every fiscal year, so it’s barely real to anyone.

And if the Cougars just had to build their grand football facilities to catch up to the Joneses – no matter the debt service – then this is just parallel thinking.

Sometimes, you just have to make up for old mistakes.

Hiring Kent was tired thinking on the part of Chun’s predecessor, Bill Moos; he couldn’t have done any worse taking a flyer on a younger, cheaper comer. Constantly rolling over the coach’s contract, meanwhile, was pure cronyism.

The point was to attract basketball talent to Pullman, as Kent had done at Oregon years before. But whatever cachet Kent had in recruiting circles evaporated during his hiatus as a broadcaster. Curiously, his only success at Wazzu was developing the odd, overlooked talent – Josh Hawkinson (who he inherited) and Robert Franks, in particular.

Now so buried are the Cougs in basketball irrelevance that betting on a younger, cheaper comer may be too much of a risk. Problem is, it’s so obviously the most challenging Power 6 basketball job in America – this would be red flag No. 2 – that coaches with heft and gravitas are probably too savvy to want it.

Unless they’re out of work, or about to be.

When he was AD at Florida Atlantic, Chun tried to go the outside-the-box route and hire ex-NBAer Michael Curry, who managed never to win more than 12 games in four years. Different challenge, different circumstances – but red flag No. 3.

There are others. The budget situation would seem to preclude any greater investment in facilities, assistants’ salaries, charter travel, recruiting or scheduling.

On the other hand, Pac-12 basketball is at its lowest ebb. Opportunity!

So there are bound to be good men intrigued – maybe some of the brighter lights of Mid-Majorville like Travis DeCuire of Montana or T.J. Otzelberger of South Dakota State. Mark Fox, most recently of Georgia, has been to five NCAA Tournaments and is, uh, between opportunities.

But maybe “who?” isn’t the question so much as “how?” The Cougars’ only real basketball success in 30 years has been achieved with approaches and styles very different than those employed over the last desultory decade. Ernie Kent didn’t fill any seats at Friel Court with roll-it-out-and-run-and-shoot basketball because his runners and shooters weren’t as good as those elsewhere in the Pac-12.

Probably time for a crossover move, no?

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