When athletic director Bill Moos triggered the rollover clause in Ernie Kent’s contract last March, effectively keeping Washington State’s basketball coach in Pullman through 2021 on a base annual salary of $1.4 million, it was first and foremost a vote of confidence from AD to skipper.
By flashing his checkbook, Moos indicated that Kent, who now receives a one-year extension at the end of each season, will not only be part of WSU’s immediate future, but will also have a long-term residency inside the confines of Beasley Coliseum.
In that sense, Kent isn’t really working on a ticking clock — not that time isn’t of the essence.
The Cougars, who open Kent’s third season at 5 p.m. Sunday with a home exhibition against NAIA Carroll College, won just a single game in the Pac-12 last season — the program’s lowest win total since 2001-02 — and finished the season on a 17-game slide. WSU’s overall record (9-22) was also the second worst of Kent’s coaching career in college basketball, which enters its 22nd season.
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And Pac-12 media members didn’t exactly take a leap of faith when sizing up the 2016-17 Cougars. In a recent preseason poll, WSU was picked to finish last in the conference and by some margin. The Cougars garnered just 30 points — 48 less than 11th-place Arizona State. The Oregon team Kent headed for more than a decade collected 320 votes and all but four first-place votes as an overwhelming favorite to win the conference.
So Kent and company are in a hurry to turn things around on the Palouse and the Cougars’ intentions should be reflected by the frenetic pace at which they run their offense this year.
“Year three of what you’d call rebuilding a program is a real pivotal year,” Kent said. “Particularly with the group of seniors we have. The success will depend upon, I think, just our mental. Our mental approach, our confidence, our toughness and those areas.”
WSU returns four seniors, including forward Josh Hawkinson, a versatile big man who ranks third on the school’s all-time list with 40 career double-doubles. In two years under the Kent regime, Hawkinson has shown a deft touch inside the key and his knack for rebounding was represented by the 11.1 boards per game he grabbed as a junior. That number ranked best in the Pac-12.
The Cougars also bring back fourth-year senior Ike Iroegbu, an athletically gifted guard who was the only player to start in all 31 games last season. Big man Conor Clifford and guard Charles Callison are junior college additions who each return for their second and final season in Pullman.
WSU graduated two role players from last year’s team, Junior Longrus and Brett Boese, and lost two more characters from the 2015-16 cast when three-guard Que Johnson (11.2 points per game) and center Valentine Izundu (2.2 blocks per game) transferred to Western Kentucky and San Diego State, respectively.
But it’s entirely plausible that the departures of Johnson and Izundu came at a convenient time for a program trying to speed up its game. A breakneck offense has traditionally been the plan of Kent’s programs at WSU, Oregon and St. Mary’s, but the Cougars spent much of last season dialing things down, especially for Johnson, who was more productive playing in a half-court set.
“I think when they look at this team, you would see a team that is a lot more, what I would call, in sync with what we want to do,” Kent said. “The speed of the game, the crispness offensively, the fact that they can flow up and down the floor now. Their ability to score.
“Part of what happened last year is we had to slow the game a little bit down and put the ball in the hands of Que Johnson. This team ... will be able to score more so therefore we can speed the game back up again.”
Both of Kent’s WSU teams have averaged just better than 70 points per game. That total ranked them sixth in the Pac-12 two years ago, but the rest of the conference leapfrogged the Cougars last season, when they were one of only two teams scoring less than 71 ppg.
Kent’s biggest offseason acquisition was Malachi Flynn, the 4A Player of the Year in the state of Washington who’s expected to assume the starting point guard role. That will allow Iroegbu, who’s proven to be a better scorer than distributor, to slide into a two-guard position.
Flynn averaged nearly 30 ppg as a senior at Bellarmine Prep, and “there are going to be nights where he’s counted on to score more, he has the ability to do that,” Kent said, “and there are going to be nights where he’s going to be counted on to distribute the ball more.”
Kent also brings in Jeff Pollard, a freshman who can play the five position when the Cougars go small, and Milan Acquaah, another rookie who Kent believes to be just as talented as Flynn.
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The skinny: The freshmen from Bellarmine Prep has been starting at point guard since WSU’s offseason trip to Italy, and his teammates and coaches have gushed about his command on the floor.
Flynn is already one of the team’s best players, and recruiting him gives the Cougars a foothold in the fertile Puget Sound recruiting area. Flynn was the Washington State 4A Player of the Year last year, giving WSU the MVP from the state’s largest high school classification in consecutive seasons. Sophomore Viont'e Daniels from Federal Way earned the honor when he was a high school senior.
Nobody has higher expectations for Flynn than his head coach, Ernie Kent, who says that he is already one of WSU’s savviest players on the court, both offensively and defensively. In Italy, the teen routinely stole the ball from much older adults because of his superior basketball IQ.
While Flynn has already grasped WSU’s defensive scheme and rotations, it is on offense where he will make the biggest impact. Flynn can stretch the floor with his shooting, and his passing ability will immediately make WSU’s post players more effective.
— The Spokesman Review