Valentine Izundu (6-foot-10, 235 pounds) was known for his shot-blocking abilities and defensive presence at Houston. That defensive might is exactly what WSU coach Ernie Kent hopes Izundu will bring to the Cougars as they open their season this week.

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In some ways, little has changed for Washington State center Valentine Izundu.

The last time Izundu suited up for an NCAA basketball game, he played for a team called the Cougars.

But that was in December 2013, when he played for the University of Houston. And as any WSU fan would tell you, red and crimson are not quite the same thing.

Keys to the season

Mesh fast

WSU lost two starters and now has a roster that features seven newcomers who have never played for the Cougars.

Development of the frontcourt

Coach Ernie Kent says the combination of Josh Hawkinson, Conor Clifford, Valentine Izundu is “the best crop of big guys I’ve ever coached.” Will they live up to billing?

Do better defensively

WSU was the Pac-12’s cellar dweller in most defensive categories last season. The Cougars allowed a league-worst 76.1 points per game.

Replace the outside shooting

Dexter Kernich-Drew and DaVonte Lacy were WSU’s go-to shooters last season, accounting for more than 50 percent of the Cougs’ three-pointers. Who will fill the void?

Win on the boards

Hawkinson was undoubtedly the Cougs’ best rebounder last season, and he led the Pac-12 at 10.8 rebounds per game. But no other player averaged more than 2.9 last season.

Izundu is a Washington State Cougar now, and after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, he’s eager to get back to playing basketball.

Izundu (6 feet 10, 235 pounds) was known for his shot-blocking abilities and defensive presence at Houston. He had 22 blocks during his freshman season (2012-13) but played only four games as a sophomore — a drop-off he attributes to a tendinitis problem in his knee.

Still, that defensive might is exactly what WSU coach Ernie Kent hopes Izundu will bring to the Cougars as they open their season this week.

“We were just a bad defensive team last year, for a lot of reasons,” Kent said, “Val was limited offensively coming into this program, but he was an excellent shot-blocker and an outstanding athlete.”

Over the past year, the WSU staff has worked to develop Izundu’s free-throw shooting and post moves while trying to help him gain a complete understanding of their system.

Izundu came to the sport of basketball relatively late. He first started playing as a ninth-grader at Cypress Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, and even then, he only joined the team after repeated requests by his high-school coach, who was impressed by the 6-6 freshman.

“I told him no, but he kept asking me until I said yes,” Izundu said. “I was not really that good my freshman year, when I first started.”

Izundu stayed on the junior varsity for three years, but made the varsity when he transferred to Lamar Consolidated High in Rosenberg, Texas, as a senior.

“That’s when I knew I was going to go to college and play in college,” Izundu said.

Three big games

Vs. Gonzaga (Dec. 2): WSU continues to sit in the shadow of the NCAA tournament regular that’s 75 miles up the road. This one is always big for the Cougs.

Vs. Washington (Jan 9): Cougars lost to the Huskies 87-84 in Pullman last year and want to show that it’ll be different this time.

At Oregon (Feb. 24): The Cougs beat the Ducks in overtime at Beasley Coliseum last season, but then lost, 55-50, in Eugene.

Stefanie Loh

He committed to Houston in large part because he wanted to stay close to home, but sought a transfer after his coach, James Dickey, resigned in March 2014.

Even though Pullman is more than 2,000 miles from Houston, Izundu signed with the Cougars because WSU was one of the first schools to show interest in him and he felt comfortable with the coaching staff.

“This team is like a family atmosphere,” Izundu said, adding that Josh Hawkinson has become his closest friend in the locker room.

To knock off the rust from his redshirt year, Izundu spent three weeks this summer playing basketball in China with the USA Eagles, a high-level team whose roster is made up of players from different Division I college teams. Former WSU guard Davonte Lacy also played for the Eagles in 2014.

Izundu’s role in the WSU program is well defined.

“If he just runs the floor, rebounds the ball and blocks or tries to block everything that comes into that lane, he will be great for us this year,” Kent said, adding that Izundu is faster than most big men and will likely beat most of them down the floor.

Izundu got his first taste of game action in a WSU uniform when the Cougars played Lewis-Clark State College in their first exhibition game Oct. 30.

The junior played 10 minutes off the bench, scored three points and had three defensive rebounds.

But that isn’t all the Cougars hope to see from Izundu this year. For one, L-C State, an NAIA team, didn’t have any big men who could match up with Izundu.

“It was a good test for him. I thought he handled himself well, even though he didn’t have a big guy to lean on,” Kent said.

“I think in time he’ll be able to really help us if he does all those simple things we need him to do: run, dunk, rebound and block shots. If he can do that, it’ll make our defense and our team so much better.”