Cougars’ coach confident his team will be improved this season

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SAN FRANCISCO — Leave it to Ernie Kent, the basketball coach-turned-broadcaster-turned-basketball coach, to deliver one of the best lines at the Pac-12 media day.

When asked about Washington State, which was picked last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Kent rushed to the defense of his Cougars.

“If we’re the last-place team, this is going to be a really, really good conference,” he said, smiling.

The response drew laughter from the media members inside the conference headquarters.

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Entering his second year with WSU, Kent said he believes the Cougars are further along at the start of the season than they were a year ago because of the many struggles and a few triumphs of his first year in Pullman.

Washington State returns three starters (Josh Hawkinson, Ike Iroegbu and Ny Redding) from the team that last season tied for eighth in the league at 7-11 and finished 13-18 overall.

The Cougars lost scoring leader DaVonte Lacy, who averaged 16.9 points a game, and must get six freshmen ready for major-college basketball.

Still, Kent sees potential in a front line that includes Hawkinson, a 6-foot-10 junior who led the Pac-12 in rebounding last season, 6-10 junior Valentine Izundu and 7-foot junior Conor Clifford.

“I have the best group of big guys that I’ve ever coached,” Kent said. “I know my team and I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know this conference. We’re big, we’re physical, we’re fast and we can score.”

Arizona pickedas the favorite

Two-time defending Pac-12 champion Arizona received 18 of the 36 first-place votes and tallied 406 points to secure the top spot in the conference’s preseason media poll for the fourth year in a row.

The Wildcats are relying on three prominent transfers (Kadeem Allen, Ryan Anderson and Mark Tollefsen) and a highly ranked recruiting class to offset the loss of four starters to the NBA.

California, which features three returning starters and elite freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, collected nine first-place votes and finished with 378 points — 28 behind the Wildcats.

Utah, which had seven first-place votes and 360 points, is third and 18 points behind the Golden Bears. The Utes have four returning starters.

Oregon (338 points), which loses Pac-12 MVP Joseph Young, came in at fourth place and UCLA (304) fifth. Both teams received one first-place vote.

Oregon State compiled 235 points for sixth and the bottom half of the poll includes: Colorado (188), Arizona State (165), Stanford (145), USC (111), Washington (96) and WSU (65).

May Madness?

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said the NCAA should “explore” starting the college basketball season a month or two later so it doesn’t compete so much with the NFL and college football.

The Pac-12 has had discussions about making college basketball a “one-semester sport,” Scott said.

“But in looking at any changes, you want to make sure to build upon your strengths,” he said. “The strength of college basketball is March and the way it ends, and we ought to be careful about anything we do.”

NOTES

Bobby Dibler, the Pac-12 coordinator of officiating, said referees have been directed to help speed up the game. “The whistle’s going to blow and it’s going to blow often early in the season,” he said.

• Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley is the newest addition to the Pac-12 coaching fraternity.