Clifford more than just offense, says JC coach

WHEN WASHINGTON STATE basketball coach Ernie Kent added 7-0 center Conor Clifford to his 2015 recruiting class, it dramatically improved the Cougars outlook for this season. But how good is Clifford? Where will he help WSU most? We sought out his junior college coach to find out.

Clifford, who spent the past season at Saddleback College, was a sought-after recruit that numerous Power 5 programs wanted but who chose Washington State. He is expected to make an immediate impact in the paint.

Clifford spent one season at UC Irvine of the Big West Conference, redshirted, then transferred to Saddleback College in southern California, where he averaged 14.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and earned Orange Empire Conference MVP last year to go along with Southern California MVP honors.

The campaign boosted his recruiting stock and helped him regain his confidence after leaving UC Irvine on bad terms.

Saddleback College coach Andy Ground said Clifford was told one day before his sophomore season at UC Irvine he was slated for a redshirt. So he opted to transfer to Saddleback College the following season.

“I think what we’ve done now is he has his confidence back and he’s proven he can really play,” Ground said.

Clifford chose the Cougars over offers from Utah, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, UTEP and South Carolina, among others.

“He wanted to go to the Pac-12, and I think Washington State did the best job of recruiting him,” Ground said.

Clifford is expected to garner big minutes next season, and not because he has two-to-play-two.

In a recent 2015-16 season preview, ESPN college basketball writer Myron Medcalf said Clifford’s “decision to pick Washington State helped filled a major void for WSU with (Jordan Railey) departing.”

Remember: Railey improved his offensive game late in his WSU tenure by developing a few decent back-to-the-basket moves. But Clifford provides a dramatic upgrade.

“He can score on anybody. He’s so skilled,” Ground said. “He can go left-handed, right-handed. Most big guys in the Pac-12 can’t do what he can do offensively.”

Ground said Clifford can knock down an open jumper, but he rarely needed to last season because teams couldn’t stop him in the paint.

Clifford helped lead the Gauchos to a 33-2 mark and a state championship. While he isn’t going impress with his vertical leap ala Ivory Clark, merely having Clifford, a decent athlete at about 270 pounds, roaming the paint should provide WSU an upgrade on defense, too.

“He’s not going to be a defensive stopper by any means of the imagination,” Ground. “However, he’ll be able to guard guys his own size. He’ll be OK doing that.”

It wouldn’t take much for him to improve WSU defensively. The Cougars ranked 296th this past season in effective field goal percentage (52.4 percent), according to advanced analytics guru Ken Pomeroy. A big reason: there was little resistance when players drove into the paint.

Power forward Josh Hawkinson made huge gains on the offensive end last season, earning the Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year award. But he indicated after the season his plan was to work on getting stronger so he could improve his post defense. The addition of Clifford should provide him with some frontcourt help.

Houston transfer Valentine Izundu will be eligible this fall after sitting out the 2014-15 season because of NCAA transfer rules. When the 6-10 center signed his national letter of intent with WSU in August 2014, Kent said Izundu had “the potential to become one of the premier shot blockers in the country.” So there’s reason to think WSU’s frontcourt should be vastly improved at both ends of the court – especially if Hawkinson adds muscle and Clifford holds his own.

“I think he’ll fit in just great,” Ground said. “Obviously, Ernie Kent is a great coach. He’s been to the NCAA tournament a number of times. I think he knows what he’s doing and Connor will do whatever you ask him.”

Last season, WSU’s frontcourt rotation was Hawkinson and Railey – and then hope they don’t get tired because there was no depth. Sure, there were moments when 6-7 forward Junior Longrus provided a spark off the bench, but he can’t effectively match up with the taller post players in the Pac-12.

That lack of frontcourt depth was a big reason WSU wasn’t better than 13-18 (7-11 Pac-12) despite having an efficient offense (71st in the country, according to kenpom.com).

In WSU’s 84-59 loss to Cal in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, it was painful from my chair to watch Railey and Hawkinson single-handedly try to keep up with Cal’s athletic, veteran frontcourt. Bears center David Kravish finished with 25 and Cal at one point hit 14 of 15 shots while repeatedly attacking WSU’s interior defense. It turned a close game into a blowout.

Next fall, that won’t be possible with a beefed-up Hawkinson, Izundu and Clifford.

“They’ll get him in shape,” Ground said of Clifford. “They’ll get him to do what they want, (Clifford will be happy with that). He’s a total team guy.”

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