Ernie Kent and the art of the Elite Eight

IF THE HEAD-TURNING progress of Washington State men's basketball team this season wasn't testament enough to the coaching excellence of Ernie Kent, feast on this unofficial nugget of March Madness number crunching: Since 2000 -- a span covering 15 seasons -- just 28 of the 345 schools playing Division I basketball have advanced to two or more Elite Eights. And Kent presided over one of them.

WSU's first-year head man guided Oregon to the Elite Eight in 2002 and 2007, thereby putting the Ducks in the group of 28 alongside Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Arizona, Louisville, Florida et. al.

For perspective on how difficult it is to scale those heights, consider this:

Seven teams that advanced all the way to the Final Four at some point between 2000 and 2014 didn't make a second appearance in the Elite Eight in that time frame.

To further drive home the degree of difficulty, take a look at some of the notable coaching names from 2000-2014 who didn't make it to an Elite Eight (Mark Few, Lon Kruger, Dana Altman, Tony Bennett, Lorenzo Romar) or didn't make it to more than one (Mike Montgomery, Mark Gottfried, John Thompson III, Shaka Smart, John Chaney, James Larrañaga).

In short, being a two-time Elite Eight coach makes Kent not just unique, but a veritable expert on a subject with a limited number of virtuosos.

So as March Madness moves into the serious bracket stage this week with Elite Eight berths on the line, sought out Kent for insights.

Our timing was excellent. The coach had a brief window to chat Wednesday after getting off a plane. And if you want to squeeze a maximum amount of information out of a limited opportunity, there's no one better to talk with -- as Sydney Greenstreet famously enthused in The Maltese Falcon -- than "a man who likes to talk."

"It's very difficult to get to the Elite Eight -- you need the right match up, the right chemistry, momentum and a little luck," Kent said. "You have to do your work in terms of preparation, but coaching at this stage is about feel. You have to have the feel of where your team is ... not bogging them down mentally versus being fresh mentally. That's feel. There are no ABCs about where your team is at."

He said he learned a tough lesson in that regard in 2007, when his Ducks lost their Elite Eight battle to eventual national champion Florida.

Kent and Porter in 2007

"We came within a bad Tajuan Porter jump-shooting day of winning," Kent said. "He shot too many 3s in practice the day before and left all his makes in the gym. He wanted to get up extra shots (in practice), and had a lot of energy, so I let him. Shouldn't have. We got in the game, had open looks, but couldn't hit.

"It was a great battle, we played small ball against their bigs, (Joakim) Noah and (Al) Horford."

Porter, a 5-foot-6 marksman supreme, went 2 for 10 from the arc and 0 for 2 inside it, and the Ducks lost by eight.

The single-best piece of advice Kent said he'd offer to today's Sweet 16 teams is this: embrace the moment.

"You can over think, you can over stress, you can over prepare," he said. "You need to be in the right frame of mind. You have to embrace the moment -- everything from the hotel walk through, the band in the lobby, the media. time on the court. Nothing is negative here. It's all about the positive.

"It's so fleeting and difficult to get there. It's the experience of a lifetime. Embrace the moment and bring the energy to accomplish what you want to accomplish."

He said the recent Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas offered a poignant example of how deeply imbedded March Madness is in the national fabric and a glimpse into the special nature of the Elite Eight.

"There are still people who work on the casino floor or at the hotel doors who say, 'Coach, we remember you guys knocking us (UNLV) out.' "

That was eight years ago -- in the 2007 Sweet 16 -- when Porter canned eight 3s to lead the Ducks over the Runnin' Rebels.

"It's difficult to get there (the Elite Eight). That's why they remember," Kent said.

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