Kent opens Spokane eyes with Izundu comment

SPOKANE – With Mike Leach out on the football recruiting trail, hoops head man Ernie Kent took the mic at the final Spokane Cougar Club coaches luncheon of the season. Kent had the crowd going with his rundown on players - but his comment on shot-blocker extraordinaire Valentine Izundu (6-10, 235) really opened eyes wide.

Kent told the crowd he got a call from Izundu’s mother in Nigeria the other day.

“I could barely make out what she was saying and then she said; ‘What have you done with my son! He’s blocking everything now!’”

A transfer from Houston who redshirted last season, Kent then really caught the attention of those assembled at the Spokane luncheon, proclaiming Izundu; “the best athlete I have ever coached.”

Kent, who went to two NCAA Elite Eights with Oregon, is in his 21st season as an college head coach.

Although the season is just four games old and the combined record of WSU’s first four opponents is but 4-16, that didn’t diminish Kent’s enthusiasm one iota when it comes to Izundu's shot blocking.

“This kid can literally touch the top of the backboard when he jumps. And if you look at blocked shots-per-minutes played, he’s the leading shot blocker in the NCAA right now,” he said.

(Izundu with 3.75 blocks per game is t-3rd nationally behind Oregon's Chris Boucher [4.33] and FIU's Adrian Diaz [4.43] according to the NCAA stat book).

KENT SAID HE and his staff have moved the WSU program in the right direction in their first 20 months on the job but when it comes to Wednesday’s tilt against visiting mid-major Gonzaga, well …

“That is a very big team,” Kent said of the Zags. “(Kyle) Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski – it’s hard to match up against that kind of size.”

Kent said a typical 7-footer looks small next to a Karnowsi, who is listed at 7-1, 287-pounds on GU’s roster.

KENT SAID he was pleased with where his Cougars are at this stage. Texas Southern, the team WSU beat Saturday to improve to 4-0, was a quality opponent, Kent said. The Tigers were the Southwestern Conference champions a year ago and an NCAA Tournament team. (Alas, the Tigers are 0-5 this season).

In addition to Izundu, he also shared thoughts on Robert Franks, a 6-foot-7 true freshman forward from Vancouver.

“He has the softest pair of hands I’ve ever seen and he can really step out and shoot the 3,” Kent said. “He’s going to fit in as a Stretch 4, especially after Josh Hawkinson (a junior) leaves.”

Conor Clifford, a 7-footer, arrived on campus weighing 293 pounds.

“He’s down to 263 pounds now,” Kent said. “He has a great little hook shot and a soft touch around the basket. He’s almost an automatic scorer now in the low post.”

And then there’s Junior Longrus, a 6-7 senior who was the Player of the Game against Texas Southern.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this young man is going to be a Senator someday,” Kent said.

Kent also talked about Hawkinson, who has flourished under Kent. As a freshman, Hawkinson averaged 5 minutes and 2 ppg. Headed into Gonzaga, he has recorded 22 straight double-doubles.

“People ask me what we did to get so much more out of Josh.” Kent said. “But our system is ideally suited to a player like Josh. I had a meeting as soon as I got there with Josh. He came into my office and said ‘Hi coach.’ I said “Hi Josh. I want you to shoot every time you touch the ball from now on.’ He smiled and left my office.’”

Kent also pointed to Hawkinson playing the European-style 4 position – a tall post who can play away from the basket, which suits Hawkinson’s game nicely.

KENT ALSO WAXED poetic on his playing days and coming to Beasley Coliseum to face some of George Raveling’s tallest squads – featuring James Donaldson, Steve Puidokas and Stuart House along with Don Collins.

“The energy in Beasley was always so great,” he said. “It was great during the Kelvin Sampson years and again when the Bennetts were here. We want to make it that way again. That’s what we need to take this thing to the next level.”

Kent noted it was different at first, coming to WSU as the former Ducks’ coach (and UO player).

“Playing here, you’re used to seeing me down at the other end (of the sideline),” he said. “You booed us a lot. We won that overtime game that we probably shouldn’t have won and you booed us some more. So, becoming your coach I’m sure you were leery and I was leery about coming here and everything.”

He said he wanted the Spokane crowd to understand: That was then. Things are different now.

“I’ve been here now for about 20 months,” he said. “As a player my experience here was from the airport, to the parking lot, to the arena, back to the parking lot and back to the airport and out of here again. It was the same way as an announcer.

“But having been here now and having experienced some of that great wine from Walla Walla, I’ve experienced Coeur d’Alene Lake and that beautiful golf course where I’ve lost golf balls, having experienced the Tri-Cities, where I’ve taken my team now for two retreats, I’ve jet-boated down Hells Canyon and I’ve biked that Coeur d’Alene Bike Trail, I think one of the best-kept secrets in the country is this Palouse Country here. And I feel blessed to be here.”

And in an effort to fill the seats, he wanted everyone to know his2015-16 Cougar basketball team is another best-kept secret – more than worthy of a winter drive to Pullman and a seat at Friel Court.

He made his case to the Spokane luncheon by noting the Cougs this summer posted a 3.2 team GPA.

“I know there is evidence that shows a link between basketball success and lower grade-point averages,” he said. “That’s not how we’re going to operate.”

He then mentioned (for perhaps the 50th time over the last two months) his team sung the school fight song in the weight room this offseason among some 120 Washington State athletes from an array of other sports.

“These guys stood up and they sang the school fight song in front of all of those other athletes,” Kent said. “That’s just shows you how much these young men are enjoying their college experience.”

RELATED STORY: Kent says WSU scheduling just right headed into Gonzaga

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