WSU hoops: More Clifford in Izundu’s absence, says Ernie Kent

PULLMAN – The Cougs head to Arizona for their first Pac-12 road trip of the year this week and Ernie Kent said junior center Conor Clifford will continue to receive more minutes because of the foot injury to Valentine Izundu. Clifford has made the most of them. In his last two games against UCLA and UW, Clifford is a combined 9-10 from the field.

"When (Clifford) gets going on his game, he's tough to guard," said Kent after practice Tuesday, and he also indicated forward Robert Franks’ role could increase while Izundu is sidelined. "(Izundu) has some swelling in his foot. It's a lot better today than it was last week. We'll look at it again at the two-week mark and see if we need to play him in the three-week or let it go to four weeks -- we don't know."

Freshman guard Viont'e Daniels (back) is 100 percent healthy, Kent said.

Meanwhile, the routine is everything to Kent. So if you thought shooting free throws might be more of an emphasis this practice week for the Cougs, after Washington State missed 14 from the line in the 99-95 overtime loss to UW, you'd be mistaken.

"These guys know they need to shoot them, they know they do a good job, so there's nothing special we need to do," Kent said. "We don't want to overemphasize (free throws) too much at all. So we stay with our normal routine (and) we shoot a ton of free throws every week."  (You can see video of Kent after practice below).

Junior point guard Charles Callison also said Kent didn’t change anything this week when it came to practicing at the charity stripe. 
“It’s just really a mental thing for us,” Callison said of the free throw misses, something he said was all on the players. “It’s just come in the gym and just shoot a lot of free throws and just get a good rhythm for it -- and just knock them down when the game comes, that’s basically what (Kent) told us.”

Callison said there’s no real trick to making free throws, but he does have his own way to stay focused.  “I just try to picture the ball going through the hole. Basically, just try to tune out all the bad (thoughts).”

Washington State (9-6, 1-2 Pac-12) plays at Arizona State Thursday at 5 p.m. before taking on Arizona on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

Gaining consistency continues to be the emphasis for Kent. Fourth-year junior Que Johnson believes he has improved in that area and the stats back him up.  Johnson is averaging 10.3 ppg on 46 percent shooting this season. Last year, he was 38 percent from the floor and averaged 6.1 ppg. Johnson said one way he tries to stay “on his game” is extra work in the gym.

“I try to shoot extra shots after practice or just late at night,” Johnson said.

But a WSU team with seven new faces has found consistency to be an elusive commodity at season's midpoint. The veterans are working closely with the newcomers to try and get there, Johnson said.

“We make sure the new guys are on the same page with us,” Johnson said. “Like, if they text us at night and have questions, we just try to do whatever we can to help them out."

Kent isn't worried about the seven new players heading out on their first Pac-12 road trip, citing the experience of playing in Hawaii earlier this season. This week's conversations about playing on the road have focused on a few key messages.

"We talk about coming together...we talk about the competitive nature and you have to play harder, you gotta play smarter on the road," Kent said.  "And hopefully the environment's in both of these games will force us to do one thing, and that's grow."

Kent said halfway through the 2015-16 what he likes most about his team is the chemistry being built. When it comes to where he'd like to see the most improvement game to game, Kent answered the same as he has for a few weeks.

"The thing I want to improve with is just getting more guys on their game, comfortable playing at this level, understanding what it is we're doing and then continue to grow this fan base," he said.

Kent has mentioned often this season about the need to have more fans in the seats, an issue exacerbated with the students having been on Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks - the students just returned for the start of the spring semester on Monday.  Kent says if the Cougs keep improving then the crowds will come out and bring the energy, so crucial in Kent's eyes, as in the Gonzaga and Washington games.

Kent on ASU's Tra Holder (16.3 ppg):  "He's an excellent point guard and you have to pay attention to detail when you're guarding him because he has the ability to take the game over."

Kent on ASU: "They play extremely hard. They're very well-coached. They play smart."

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