The Cougars lost point guard Malachi Flynn - who transferred to San Diego State - but they've reloaded with a host of junior college transfers and Ernie Kent says he believes they're about to turn the corner.
PULLMAN — Any doubt about the mindset or resolve of Washington State men’s basketball coach Ernie Kent after four consecutive losing seasons evaporates the minute Kent starts talking about his team.
His excitement and determination are visible.
No matter that his Cougars are picked to finish last in the Pac-12. He feels the turnaround is coming – and soon.
He thought it was happening last year, when the team started 6-0 and won the Wooden Legacy tournament against some very good teams. But “we came back here, and didn’t handle ourselves well, and got knocked out of whack and never got it back,” said Kent, whose team finished 12-19.
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But this is a different team, Kent said, and he can’t wait to show it off.
“I can’t put it into words,” Kent said of his excitement level. “You go through this, and you struggle with the program, and build it and put it together – and you finally feel like you are getting there, where you can compete with the other teams in terms of player personnel.
“We have that energy because you want to have success so bad, and you are driven as coaches by being successful, by winning, by getting to a tournament. I’m anxious, because this is a very good group of guys.”
Indeed, there are reasons for optimism, beginning with the return of Robert Franks. The 6-foot-9 forward declared for the NBA draft, but pulled his name out one day before the June 1 deadline, deciding to return to WSU.
Franks led the Cougars in scoring last season at 17.4 points a game (seventh in the Pac-12), was second in rebounding and was named the Pac-12’s most improved player.
“It was huge,” Kent said of Franks’ return. “It gives you a legitimate, bona fide player-of-the-year candidate in the conference and one of the better players in the country and a potential NBA draft pick. You have that guy on your roster now. We’ve got that guy.”
Three of the team’s top four scorers from last season are back, with the notable exception being point guard Malachi Flynn, the starter at that position the past two years and the second-leading scorer last season at 15.8 points a game.
Flynn transferred to San Diego State, leaving Kent a big hole to fill. He said he believes he has done that, bringing in two junior college stars: 6-foot-2 Jervae Robinson from Colorado and the speedy 5-11 Ahmed Ali, a second-team junior college all-American at Eastern Florida State College who once scored 103 points in a high school game in Canada.
Kent said the two “are in a ferocious battle” for the starting spot, but both will see plenty of playing time.
“They are different and unique,” Kent said. “One is strong and can get in the lane and score (Robinson) and can shoot the three. The other one (Ali) is super quick and can defend full court and can shoot the three. The two of them together give us kind of a two-headed monster that we have not had before.
“We have two point guards that can run a team and get you points and get the job done. That position is secure now, and going into the offseason with Malachi leaving, that was my biggest concern. We’ve got to get a point guard that can run this system. And we have two of them. They are not coming in as freshmen. They are coming in as proven junior-college players.”
Joining Franks as key returners are shooting guards Viont’e Daniels and Carter Skaggs. Daniels, a 6-2 senior from Federal Way, shot 45. 5 percent from three-point range last season (71 of 156) and was third on the team in scoring at 9.1 points a game. Skaggs, a 6-5 junior, averaged 8.2 points per game, fourth on the team, and shot 40 percent from three-point range (69 of 171).
What also has Kent optimistic are new front-line players, including a pair of freshman forwards: CJ Elleby, 6-6, from Seattle’s Cleveland High School, and Aljaz Kunc, 6-8, from Slovenia.
Kent also added height and athleticism from the junior-college ranks, getting several players he thinks can give the Cougars an immediate boost. Marvin Cannon, a 6-5 forward, led the national JC tournament in scoring and rebounding, Kent said, “and at 6-5, that’s hard to do.”
Also expected to be contributors from junior colleges are 6-10 James Streeter and 6-7 Isaiah Wade.
“My assistants did an incredible job of reloading this program, going through the adversity of losing so many close games and losing Malachi,” Kent said. “They hustled and did a tremendous job of retooling the roster. This is a long athletic basketball team.”
Kent talked about the time it takes to build a program. In his sixth year at Saint Mary’s, he finally turned the Gaels around and got them into the NCAA tournament in 1996-97. Then, his Oregon team took a huge leap in his fifth season, making it to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight in 2001-02.
“As coaches, we have a lot of pride, and I made promises that I was going to turn this program around, and normally, when you do that, you do it from the inside out. It took us time at Saint Mary’s, it took us time at Oregon, and here we are here. I am 100 percent committed to turning this.”
He said this is the team to do that.
“The biggest unknown is experience: How are they going to respond when the bright lights come on?” Kent said. “But they are coachable, and we have upped the ante in all areas. So there is an excitement for us. Are we there now? We certainly feel like we are there.”