Cougar hoops and the smart early schedule

WASHINGTON STATE'S men's basketball team, which opens the season Friday at home against Northern Arizona, is playing the type of non-conference schedule coach Ernie Kent wished he had a year ago: one that will allow his troops to gel and build confidence before heading into conference play.

Last season's Cougs were on the road for five of their first eight games and none of those contests fell into the gimme category. For a young squad transitioning to a new coaching staff and system, that early crucible did them no favors.

This time around, the Cougars open with six straight games at home before traveling all of eight miles to take on Idaho. They then return home for two more games prior to jetting across the Pacific for the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.

All that home cookin' figures to be just the recipe for a club that is blending seven returning players with six newcomers. Playing in front of friendlies could be especially important for the Cougs' two toughest non-conference opponents before Honolulu -- Gonzaga on Dec. 2 and UTEP on Dec. 13. The Cougs lost to both of them on the road last year.

Kent has said in recent weeks that he expects this team to go through growing pains early on but then find their stride. He recently scoffed at Pac-12 media members slating the Cougars for a No. 12 finish in the conference.

Friday's game with Northern Arizona tips off at 5:30 p.m. and will be televised on Pac-12 Washington. Greg Hester and Dan Dickau will have the call.

The Cougars are 92-22 all-time in season openers and 53-8 when opening at home.

The Cougars return three starters from last year's 13-18 (7-11) team in Mr. Double-Double forward Josh Hawkinson and guards Ike Iroegbu and Ny Redding and three other experienced veterans in senior forwards Junior Longrus and Brett Boese and junior swingman Que Johnson.

In addition, 7-foot center Valentine Izundu, who redshirted last season after transferring in from Houston, figures to play a notable role on defense.

The six newcomers are JC transfers Conor Clifford, Charles Callison, Renard Suggs and Derrien King and true freshmen Robert Franks and Viont’e Daniels.

Clifford, a 7-foot, 270-pound center with a nice offensive game, is expected to play a huge role this season. He didn't play in the two Cougars' two exhibition games but returned to practice this week and could see action Friday, Kent said.

Callison and Redding have been battling for the starting point guard, but given the depth of Kent's typical rotation, both figure to play considerable minutes.

With last year's leading scorer, DaVonte Lacy, now playing pro ball overseas, look for Iroegbu and Johnson to kick up their production on the offensive end. Suggs and Callison, who can both hit from long range, also will help fill the void left by Lacy.


  • Hawkinson, a junior, is on pace to break Steve Puidokas' 38-year-old WSU record for career rebounds (992). Last season he broke Jim McKean's 48-year-old WSU record for most double-doubles in a season, notching 20 of them -- fourth-most in the nation last season.

  • Following Northern Arizona, the Cougars host Idaho State, Cal State-LA, Texas Southern, Gonzaga and Portland State before heading across the border to Idaho. They'll wrap up the non-conference home slate with UTEP and Texas State.

  • The Cougs will open play in the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 22 against Oklahoma. The six other teams in the tourney are Auburn, BYU, Harvard, New Mexico, Hawaii and Northern Iowa.

  • The Cougars open Pac-12 play with three straight home games: USC on Jan. 1, UCLA Jan. 3 and Washington on Jan. 9.

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