Ernie Kent talks revamping & starting line up

PULLMAN -- If the season started today, what would Ernie Kent’s starting lineup look like? asked the first-year Washington State coach that question during a conversation in his Smith Gym office the other day. In the wide-ranging talk, Kent also talked about the importance of continuity -- at the defensive end of the court.

The short answer to the starting lineup question is that senior standout DaVonte Lacy will be one of the five on the floor when WSU opens the season at UTEP on Nov. 14. It’s a pretty good bet that a bulkier Dexter Kernich-Drew will be out there too. The remainder of the quintet has a big “To-Be-Determined” stamp on it, Kent said.

“I don’t have that answer for you -- DeVante and four others,” laughed Kent. “When you look at where DeVante is, and Dex, they’ve clearly created some separation as to their work ethic, their confidence, their understanding. They have clearly separated.”

Que Johnson could be next to solidify a starting spot.

“Everyone else is in that evaluation stage to calculate who’s getting the minutes, who’s getting the start, and where they’re going to be at (position-wise). I think the next guy in line would be Que ... But we’ll know more about that in the next couple weeks.”

Roster aside, Kent also offered insights to his coaching philosophy. He echoed one of the cornerstones of Vince Lombardi's approach: pursue perfection. While unattainable, the chase means players can catch excellence. Kent uses different words when talking about it, but the meaning is the same.

“Set your sights for that (high) level. If there’s some slippage, you’re still having success,” said Kent.

SINCE THE DAY KENT WAS HIRED AT WSU on March 31, much has been talked and written about his offense. He wants defense to be part of the discussion, too.

If you look at Colorado and Utah this season, Kent said, you'll see two senior-laden groups and two very good basketball teams. And that’s in large part to the continuity on defense.

“See, they’ve gone through the fire three years now. They have continuity in place, their system in place. That means they are reading (not just) the first option on the play, but they can read the fourth option on a play, to take the first, second, third options away. That’s continuity! And it takes time to get that in place,” said Kent.

“You have to teach, so 2-3 years down the road we’ve got a nucleus of guys who really understand ... You’re not going to get that in seven months, not with as much teaching as we’re doing. But I’ve got some tremendous teachers here with me. And we’re spending a lot of time teaching right now, teaching for where we want to be down the road,” Kent said.

THE PREVAILING THEME for the Cougs this offseason under Kent has been change. And lots of it.

“Everything had to be revamped here,” said Kent. “When you talk about changing the culture of the program, that’s everything from the classroom to the weight room to my classroom. We had to look at everything.”

In the classroom, for instance, players are required to sit in one of the first three rows. And when they hit the road for away games, they'll be wearing suits and ties instead of sweats.

“When you anticipate the start (of a season), you evaluate, and then you can try to calculate where you need to go and all of those things. We’re in the evaluation stage right now ... And that’s where we are right now, holding them accountable and having them understand that winning is important here,” said Kent.

Working with strength coach Scott Thom, who has done "a fantastic job," Kent also revamped the Cougars' weight training program.

“We’ve upgraded things here in terms of the way we work. I’ll give you a great example of that: Dexter has put on 20 pounds this summer, (he’s) playing with a lot of confidence shooting the ball. Ike Iroegbu, he’s already a great athlete, but he’s improved his vertical another seven inches,” said Kent.

THE COUGARS FINISHED LAST IN THE PAC-12 last season in field-goal percentage and scoring offense. That output came after finishing 11th and 10th, respectively, in those categories the year before. In other words, there's a nasty trend line to break.

“This is a team that has not shot the ball well in the last couple years,” said Kent. “So one of the biggest areas we’ve (focused on) is trying to give them confidence and implement a system that allows them to, I call it, play up to their potential ... And I think we’ve accomplished that, they’re shooting the ball pretty good right now. I’m pleased with that.

“I use the theory: Okay we’ve brought you up here to the manhole. Now we’ve got to get you up to the skyscraper. I use that just as an analogy ... because you can’t be satisfied that we’ve made all these improvements, now we’ve got to go even more. We like to set our sights on championships here,” said Kent.

THE COUGARS WILL BE TESTED EARLY. They open on the road against a pair of teams with former Pac-12 coaches at the helm: UTEP (Tim Floyd, Southern Cal) and Texas Christian (Trent Johnson, Stanford).

UTEP is projected to win the Conference USA crown. TCU is coming off a horrendous season (9-22) but in basketball, sometimes it only takes one guy to spark major improvement -- and TCU has two intriguing transfers in Trey Zeigler (Pitt) and Chris Washburn (UTEP).

Kent sees a silver lining in being challenged from the get-go.

"Regardless of the outcome, it's going to strengthen your team to open up on the road against two great Pac-12 coaches ... We have to perform at a high level, right from the start."

  • The Cougs have an exhibition game this Friday at 7 p.m. at Friel Court against Azusa Pacific.

  • The roster feature just three seniors -- Lacy, Kernich-Drew and Jordan Railey) -- but a whopping six rookies in the form of three true freshmen and three transfers.

  • One of TCU's nine wins last year came against WSU, 64-62.

  • Coug fans can cap off Thanksgiving Day with a little Cougar hoops. WSU will face UC Santa Barbara that night at 9:00 PST (Thursday, Nov. 27) in the opening round of the 2014 Great Alaska Shootout. The game will air on CBS Sports Network (CBSSN). If the Cougs win, they'll play on Friday Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. PST (8 p.m. AKST) -- also on CBSSN -- against the winner of Rice vs. Mercer (Thursday, 6:30 p.m. PST).

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