Kevin O’Neill: How I’d get Que to next level

HOW DO YOU get Washington State guard Que Johnson, at times a budding star, at others pulling a disappearing act, to take that next step? We asked Pac-12 Networks Analyst Kevin O’Neill what he would do to push Johnson over the top. It was one of many candid insights O’Neill had to offer on the 2015-16 Cougs in this Cougfan.com exclusive Q&A.

Talking on the phone with O’Neill, you’d have no idea he was known as one of the most intense coaches in college basketball. For one, you can’t see his face, which would turn an alarming shade of purplish-red when he stomped up and down the sidelines during games. Two, he’s about as affable as it comes discussing college basketball.

O’Neill has found a niche in his role on the Pac-12 Networks. And he’d rather gouge out his eyes than sugarcoat something.

While coaching at Tennessee, he once in the first half told a struggling player: “You better die before halftime!”

His tactics, let’s say, were old school, but O’Neill’s belief system should resonate with long-time Washington State basketball fans. He is a devout member of the Church of Bennett.

Even his bad USC teams played grind-it-out, pack-it-in, man-to-man defense. Rarely was an O’Neill outfit beat in transition. His offenses, kindly described, were methodical.

In a way, the 58-year-old, Malone, New York native is like former Washington State football coach Dennis Erickson – a nomad. O’Neill had five different college stops as a head coach – Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern, Arizona (interim) and USC – and he had a short stint as head coach for the Toronto Raptors to go along with many years as an NBA and college assistant.

Put it all together and we thought O’Neill could provide sterling insight in evaluating Ernie Kent’s first season in Pullman and looking ahead to the 2015-16 WSU basketball season. And O’Neill didn’t disappoint.

CF.C: What was your impression of the job Ernie Kent did in his first year at Washington State?

"They made great strides. Ernie impacted in every way. He did what veteran coaches do. He got the fan base excited. He played an entertaining style. He's a veteran coach that knows how to recruit. I think Ernie was an outstanding choice for the job."

CF.C: Is there any way to replace DaVonte Lacy, both in terms of his scoring and leadership? Will WSU, as a result, be more balanced offensively next season?

O’Neill: "Well, they'll be more balanced but to replace a great scorer like that, especially with Ernie's style of play, is difficult. But Que Johnson () and those guys need to step up, and everybody pick up the slack and everybody do a little bit more. And if they do that, they'll have an improved year again this year.”

CF.C: Do you see Que taking that next step? He’s a guy who’s shown flashes, looking really talented offensively and then there are other moments where he leaves you shaking your head. How would you handle him if you were his coach?

O’Neill: "I'm sure Ernie is doing this: Que Johnson needs to be in the gym all day every day. Unless he's eating or going to school, he needs to be in the gym or the weight room all day every day. And if he does that and he commits to that, he'll become a scorer like DaVonte Lacy. Maybe not quite as good right now, but that was Que's (second year) playing for Washington State… he had some ups and downs, but I'm a big believer in his ability."

CF.C: How do you think influx of big men – see center Conor Clifford and Houston transfer Valentine Izundu -- will help this team?

“If they can make their inside people more athletic with the guys that are coming in… (it) will be a great advantage to them when they run the ball. (Josh Hawkinson) is going to be able to walk into a lot of trailer three's and a lot of trailer jumpers and high pick-and-rolls as long as he's not playing the center position. As long as he's at the four spot and you've got two seven-footers that can come in and make a difference, they'll be much improved."

CF.C: Hawkinson caught a lot of people by surprise last year. What do you think his upside is?

"I think everybody was surprised, probably including Josh, but the bottom line is he's a kid who looks like he works hard enough to make another tremendous jump next year. And if he can do that, they get some other inside help from their recruiting guys, they've got a chance."

CF.C: What struck me about WSU last year is they were in most games, but they really struggled defensively. Your USC and Arizona teams always defended well. For WSU, did they just not have the players to match up last year? Were they still learning Kent’s system? What really led to those defensive struggles?

O’Neill: "I think when you put the kind of emphasis that Ernie does on the offensive end, on running the ball, on playing at a fast pace, it probably takes two or maybe two-and-a-half years to really get your defense to catch up with your offense. I think you'll see a much-improved defensive end of the court for WSU and, if they can do that without the expense of losing some of their offensive power, that'll be a team that can win more of those close games down the stretch.

“But their defense does need to get better. They need to step up. You got to be able to get stops in the last five minutes of games. If you can't get stops in the last five minutes of games, you're going to lose a lot of close games. "

CF.C: Why would it take two, two-and-a-half years to implement Kent’s defense?

O’Neill: "When I was a head coach, our defense was in place in the first two months because that's what I spent all my time on. Ernie spends a little more time on the offensive end of the court so it takes a little longer for the defense to catch up to the offense, but it will happen."

CF.C: Do you think WSU needs to play a really specific style to have success in Pullman (like the Bennett years)?

O’Neill: "The thing about it is, Ernie does have his own style. He's going to play at a pace that visiting teams should have a problem with. Tony Bennett did it the style with the slowdown, dig-in, half-court, man-to-man and all that. That's what I preferred more but with Bill Moos -- who's one of the better athletic directors in the country -- as far as Ernie Kent, he knew exactly what he was getting, made the decision and went with it."

CF.C: Last year the conference had four teams get into the NCAA tournament, which was a step up over recent years. Where do you see it headed next year?

O’Neill: "If the bottom of the league can get better, it will make the conference deeper. You're only as deep a league as your last four teams. If the last four teams can make improvement and get better -- Arizona is always going to be there, UCLA is always going to be there, Oregon's going to be there. Cal is going to be much-improved with all the five-star players they have coming in. I think the league might struggle a little bit early because they've lost a lot of high-level players, but by the end of the year, it should be a very deep league.

"The Pac-12 to me had the most impressive performance of any league last year in the postseason. (Stanford’s Dawkins) wins the NIT and the four teams that went to the NCAA tournament all advanced. So they did a great job."

CF.C: The really early predictions have WSU finishing in the bottom half of the conference next year. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

O’Neill: "It's hard for me to make predictions because I don't know their (new) recruits very well, but they have enough returning players that they may be able to drag those recruits along a little quicker -- especially if they have a great summertime. But they can finish in the top six. Josh Hawkinson is going to be a first-team, All-Pac-12 player. And when you've got that to build on, you have a chance to do well."

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